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South Central makes its way to Hulu.
THIS FOOL IS A TERRIFIC but occasionally frustrating series on Hulu. Boasting a uniformly excellent cast and clever and daring writing about people and issues that are generally overlooked and underappreciated on television, it should be a slam dunk. However, its mordant wit sometimes veers into a nihilism that dampens the enjoyment of this show.
“This fool” is a colloquial, neighborhood expression that is both an insult and a term of affection, and it encapsulates the series’s ethos. At its best, it balances sarcasm and edge with charm to great effect. Julio Lopez (Chris Estrada, the co-creator of This Fool), has played by the rules, not always to his benefit. Even though he manages a nonprofit, Hugs Not Thugs, which helps ex-cons and gang members transition to life outside of prison, his matriarchal family considers him to be a loser because at the age of 30 he’s unmarried and still lives at home. He has an on-again-off-again relationship with the free-spirited Maggie (Michelle Ortiz), and a contentious relationship with his cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones), recently released from prison and now put under his charge at Hugs Not Thugs. Bossed around at home, in his love life, in his South Central L.A. neighborhood, and now at work, Luis feels stymied. His mentor, Rev. Leonard Payne (Michael Imperioli), is the head of Hugs Not Thugs and purports to be a pure, zen-like, healing leader; however, he has severe and self-destructive anger management issues at “the system” that might have more to do with mistakes he’s made in his own life.
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This Fool is at its funniest and keenest when it manages to balance absurdity and realism. Its characters are constantly striving to rise above their circumstances without abandoning the community that raised and supported them. In “The Rooster,” Julio is forced to mediate between the elderly and eccentric Don Emilio, who owns a truculent rooster, and the rest of the neighborhood; no one can sleep because of its incessant crowing. One member of the community says, “Don Emilio, do you know why I left El Salvador? Because of the death squads. But also because of the roosters.” Another member pleads, “You’re putting us in a delicate position, Don Emilio. We all know that if Darius kills your rooster, me and the other Latinos gotta back your ass up and fuck up Darius’s dog. I don’t wanna fuck up Darius’s dog. It's a cute ass dog!” Instead of bringing the community to the brink of race riots, somehow Don Emilio’s rooster unites the Latino, black and Asian neighbors in irritation against this stubborn old man. The fact that the episode ends sweetly without losing any of its piquancy is quite a feat of daring and execution: race relations are fraught territory for any program, and This Fool navigates the subject deftly and with great humor.
I also love “Los Personas Invisibles.” Esperanza (Laura Patalano), has just retired from her office cleaning job and doesn’t know what to do. Her kids don’t understand. They tell her to relax and enjoy herself. But she feels useless, having had to work her whole life to survive. While stubbornly driving without her glasses, she accidentally hits an elderly woman, Beverly (the fabulous Lois Smith) outside Beverly’s stately Victorian home in Angelino Heights. After Beverly regains consciousness, she remembers nothing and mistakes Esperanza for her cleaning lady. Because she doesn’t want to admit guilt, Esperanza plays along, but immediately she takes to her new “job.” Beverly makes her feel needed and appreciated. Now blissful, Esperanza lies to her kids and tells them she’s gone to church. They don’t even care enough to question her even though the gifts Beverly gives her are piling up in their home. Beverly’s grandson (who coincidentally works in the office Esperanza cleaned for decades but still doesn’t recognize her) is more disdainful of Beverly than Esperanza’s kids are of her. He tells Esperanza—in his terrible Spanish he insists on practicing—that he is planning to put Beverly into a nursing home, or, as the subtitles translate, “A house for the hags who are going to die soon.” Despite these two women being from different neighborhoods, socio-economic backgrounds and races, they are similarly invisible to the world: two lonely older women who support each other while the younger generation dismisses them. The episode is half in Spanish and half in English, and those two halves make a satisfying whole. In addition to being poignant, the episode is surreally funny and sharp eyed. It is the perfect mixture of acidity and sweetness, and it is a marvel.
But sometimes This Fool missteps and becomes so far-fetched and steeped in cynicism that it feels alienating. Meanness creeps in. By the end of the second season, some of the main characters have become a tad too unscrupulous, and as a result, the show isn’t as much fun to watch. A guy whose only crime is being too nice and too corny has his fingers mangled in a ceiling fan. A man Luis used to mercilessly bully as a kid vengefully lunges at Luis with a knife but cuts off three of his own fingers, and Luis runs away without calling an ambulance. Since the man’s kids are locked in their bedrooms and don’t know their dad is in distress, does the guy just bleed out? Leonard Payne morphs from an angry but righteous do-gooder into a rageful blackmailer who literally shits where he eats. Esperanza and Maria (Julio and Luis’s grandma) tell them that the reason their girlfriends broke up with them is because they are ugly sluts. I know the joke is that they’re lying to unnaturally inflate their boys’ egos, but the joke falls flat. It feels churlish and more than a little misogynist. Much of the male bad behavior is written off as the result of depression. They seem less like lovable losers and more like just plain losers. Or fools, as it were. This is undoubtedly the point, but the trick is balancing the sweet with the sour, and if the protagonists’ flaws are egregious and nasty, at some point it prevents me from laughing and makes it hard to root for them to succeed.
That said, there is so much that is admirable about This Fool. The show is ambitious and gutsy. It’s always clever, entertaining, and well paced, and it has great authenticity. It depicts South Central L.A. as a rich cultural tapestry of toughness, determination, and humor, filled with people just trying to survive. And it’s wonderful to see real, non-restylane-filled faces and non-cosmetically altered bodies (often covered in tattoos) of all shapes, sizes, and colors on this show. This Fool deals with real issues—poverty, police misconduct, racism, generational trauma, the pitfalls of capitalism, and the possibilities of rehabilitation and redemption—in a nimble and diverting way that never proselytizes or sacrifices its grit. I just hope next season Julio, Luis, Leonard, Maggie, Esperanza, and Maria grow as people rather than contract into caricatures. The good news is Julio is going to therapy; Luis is expanding his horizons, flying solo overseas; and Leonard is going to New York to try to repair his family life. Maybe in its third season, we’ll see these fools become insulting and affectionate in equal measure.