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Early in Hulu’s “This Fool,” a Los Angeles man named Julio (Chris Estrada) indulges in a fantasy only he would find seductive. It’s the night of his thirty-first birthday—a milestone he’s done his best to ignore—and, after a day spent attempting to escape his friends and family, he finally gets a moment of solitude to relax in bed and think about his ex-girlfriend, Maggie (Michelle Ortiz), and her wide, teasing smile. “I’m the only one who knows you,” he imagines her saying as she sneaks into his room and splays her body next to his. “And I know exactly what you want.” She leans in and whispers, “You wanna lie here and stare at the ceiling and think about how much you fucking hate yourself.” Julio’s breath gets heavier; he licks his lips in anticipation. “Guess what, sucio?” she asks, her tone turning pornographic. “We’re just gonna lie here and be fucking miserable all night long.”
Misery’s the only wanted company in “This Fool,” a bawdy, laugh-out-loud comedy about depression and its absurdities. The first season, which I placed on my list of the best TV shows of 2022, had a sensible hook: Julio, a case manager at a South Central nonprofit called Hugs Not Thugs that helps former gang members reintegrate into society, takes on as his latest client his older cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), who has just completed an eight-year prison sentence. (Julio’s motives are less than pure—he’s eager to rub in his cousin’s face the fact that being an unmanly “punk-ass bitch,” as Luis put it when they were children, has kept him out of trouble.) Luis moves into the bilingual home shared by Julio; his mother, Esperanza (Laura Patalano); and the men’s grandmother, Maria (Julia Vera). The series’ Angeleno bona fides came through in its gags riffing on Black-Latinx tensions, its use of Mexican American slang, and its references to P-22, the celebrity mountain lion that stalked Griffith Park for a decade until his death last year. A scene-stealing performance by a pre-“White Lotus” Michael Imperioli—playing Hugs Not Thugs’ righteous but unhinged leader, Minister Payne—and the crackling one-upmanship between the cousins made the sunny-sad series a critical darling.
Julio’s low-grade despair can be extravagant, even aggressive. In the pilot, when some neighborhood toughs threaten to beat him up after he yells at them to stop blocking his driveway with their remote-controlled race cars, he scares them off by shouting, “Please, kill me!,” adding, “I got a lot of work to do on myself, and I don’t want to do it!” But “This Fool” is, thankfully, too whimsical and punchline-driven to join prestige TV’s feel-bad-comedy ranks. The show was co-created by Estrada and the brain trust behind the underrated “Corporate,” a series whose bleak wit derived in part from following two men who choose to suffer a thousand cuts at work rather than give up the dubious privileges afforded by their white-collar jobs. (The sterile, joyless office from “Corporate” recurs in “This Fool”; Esperanza works there as a custodian until her retirement.) “This Fool,” too, takes as a given that growth is elusive—and that, when opportunities for self-improvement arise, people tend not to take them. An episode in which Luis starts seeing a psychologist and is offered a chance at true transformation resolves with him and Julio deciding together that therapy is for suckers. Even Esperanza is an agent of chaos, cheerfully gaslighting an older white woman who mistakes her for her cleaner when retirement proves dull. That this “Seinfeld”-ian regression structures the misadventures of mostly Latinx characters feels as vital a representational accomplishment as the show’s rich cultural specificity. Luis is impulsive, Napoleonic, and stuck in the values he held when he entered prison; Julio is self-important, neurotic, and paralyzed by choice even in porn. The protagonists aren’t irreproachable role models but something rarer and more valuable: relatable assholes.
Much of the propulsive energy of the first season came from the cousins’ efforts to upstage each other. (Insult humor is a particular strength of the series. Julio is told by one character, “You look like you have a season pass to Disneyland” and, by another, “You look like you like oven-baked chips.”) Luis is the plum—equal parts sweet and tart—to his cousin’s prune, and he becomes easier to root for once he commits to looking forward instead of rehashing old beefs. But, by the finale, Julio is worse off than when he started. Hugs Not Thugs has gone under, leaving him without a job and forcing him to move into a neighbor's garage with Luis, and he’s sabotaged yet another chance at making things work with Maggie. The looser and more experimental new season, which débuted this summer, finds the men squabbling over who’s unhappier. In one of the more outrageous (and revealing) twists, Julio gets trapped in a hostage situation at a liquor store, only to find himself identifying with the anguished, lovelorn gunman, eventually supplying him with ideas for demands to the police. The cousins’ competitive depression is rivalled by that of a now dissolute Minister Payne, who at one point throws himself in front of a car in a characteristic show of desperation. It’s a very funny scene.
The trio flounder for lack of purpose until Julio gets the idea for a coffee shop called Mugs Not Thugs, run by ex-felons, and a rather fantastical means of funding it. It’s not exactly his dream, but it’s close enough—he knows that he’s supposed to want something like it. The opening of the café is another occasion for the usual dynamics, reactivating Julio’s savior complex, Luis’s knee-jerk defensiveness, and Minister Payne’s itch for redemption. It’s also a showcase for increasingly surreal flourishes, as when Julio, convinced that he’s a Steve Jobs-tier visionary, has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it costume change into a black turtleneck. His hubris escalates to the point of demanding a wall-length mural with his face on it—but the humor and comfort of “This Fool” comes from the certainty that he’ll be back to his old self before long. ♦