About a decade into the streaming era, it feels like some platforms are finally getting the hang of what an ideal streaming comedy season looks like: few episodes, one or two protagonists, vivid and detailed settings, and a premise that is precise without feeling restrictive. The pitch-perfect streaming comedy season, in other words, looks roughly like Hulu’s new series This Fool. It’s a different model than a network comedy, which looks like Cheers, Friends, Living Single, or The Office. For network shows, a group of people appear week after week and mostly hang out together, and that general premise runs for a billion episodes. Although streaming comedies haven’t yet settled on an ideal number of total seasons, a just world would give us several more years of This Fool.
The show’s premise is exactly the right balance between “no particular concept” (see Friends, a show about friends) and “complicated opening idea that will inevitably become a prison” ([Coughs.] Younger). This Fool is led by Julio (played by the show’s creator Chris Estrada) and his cousin Luis (Frankie Quinones). Julio, a straitlaced, rule-following type who still lives at home with his mother and grandmother, works at a nonprofit that helps recently incarcerated people readjust to life outside of prison. Luis, the family’s lovable, charismatic wild card, has recently been released from prison and now has to become a member of Julio’s nonprofit: Hugs Not Thugs.
It’s a structure that’s beautifully adaptable to a ten-episode streaming comedy season. The nonprofit world creates plenty of room for a large cast of auxiliary characters who can enter and exit the show as necessary and who play into This Fool’s fondness for broadly silly, offbeat humor. Michael Imperioli is incredibly funny as the program’s founder, a role that pulls off the impressive feat of getting goofier and more tragic at the same time. One of the key income streams for Hugs Not Thugs is its bakery program, in which former gang members learn to bake adorable cupcakes for distribution at local grocery stores. Is it fun to watch huge grown men scream about perfect pink cupcakes? Yes, it is! Likewise, Luis and Julio’s homelife lets This Fool develop the world of their family, with especially strong performances from Laura Patalano as Julio’s mother and Julia Vera as the family’s grandmother.
The relative tightness of This Fool’s central dynamic is one of its chief strengths, particularly for a ten-episode season. Julio and Luis can be separated into their own plotlines (as often happens when Julio gets entangled with his ex-girlfriend, played by Michelle Ortiz), or they can bounce off of one another in pleasantly flexible ways. Sometimes Luis is the agent of chaos; sometimes Julio gets to be the wacky, overdramatic half of the pairing. A few of the episodes take place primarily at Hugs Not Thugs; others are centered at Julio and Luis’s home. It lets This Fool have all the advantages of a friendship-rivalry dynamic, and having a central duo, rather than a larger ensemble cast, allows the series to spend plenty of time with each of them.
This Fool’s other wise choice is to continue to use episodes to its advantage rather than resorting to the season-long slosh that has overtaken so many streaming dramas. Episode nine, where two potential donors visit Hugs Not Thugs, has entirely its own tone and logic; Julio’s birthday episode is a downright romp. The standout episode of the season, though, is a mid-season installment called “Los Botes,” which begins with Julio letting a neighbor take the family’s recycled cans and ends with an incredible ’80s-inflected dream sequence that I would never want to spoil.
Two things make that dream sequence notable, though. The first is that it exists at all — streaming comedies can make room for this kind of oddball formal experimentation, as in Ramy’s “Strawberries” episode, and this particular iteration happens to also be completely, delightfully weird. But the second standout feature of that dream sequence is that it’s born out of a particular social and cultural foundation that This Fool establishes with such confidence and clarity. It’s a show about several generations of a Mexican American family who live in Los Angeles. They speak both English and Spanish, moving fluidly between both languages, particularly at home. Julio’s mother’s life is shaped by the political realities that brought her to the United States in the ’80s; Luis and Julio both interact with the pressures of gang violence and widespread incarceration. This Fool does not gloss over the many social and financial realities that shape Julio and Luis’s lives. It just also happens to find certain aspects of the lives of reformed gang members to be very funny. It’s willing to poke fun at the Catholicism that is pervasive in their lives, even though many of them clearly don’t believe in it. This Fool is a show that loves texture and detail, and the comedy is so much better for it.