Chris Estrada’s semi-autobiographical dramedy pairs likable characters with the endearing specificities of Mexican-American life.
Chris Estrada is a Los Angeles-born and raised comedian specializing in a brand of sincere and upfront humor. His new series, This Fool, serves as a semi-autobiographical story for the actor, a way to channel and share his life experience through television. Lucky for him, it’s a likable one, full of moments both touching and hilarious.
The series, which premieres on Hulu this weekend, follows Julio (Estrada), a thirty-something guy living in South Central LA. His life changes when his older cousin Luis (Frankie Quiñones) is released from prison. Since Julio runs one of Los Angeles’ most important gang rehabilitation centers, his family gives him the task of helping Luis get his life back in order.
That goal proves more than a little difficult since Luis has an explosive and childish personality, while Julio tends to be calmer and extremely protective of his organized schedule. It doesn’t take long before tensions rise since the two cousins can’t stand each other. But despite it all, they’re forced to work together for the sake of their family.
Estrada and Quiñones are wonderful together, expertly portraying a very difficult bond between their characters. They’re family, and they deeply care for each other, but at the same time, they can’t let the past go. Childishly, they refuse to respect one another because life took them down very different life paths.
Julio appears to be the main obstacle to his own happiness. He doesn’t dare to set boundaries for the people around him while at the same time not allowing himself to forgive his past. Estrada is compelling as someone who can see happiness within his reach but doesn’t lift a finger to get it.
Luis serves as a twisted reflection of Julio when it comes to his cousin and partner in post-crime life. Where Julio’s a pushover, Luis doesn’t care how his fun at the expense of other members of the rehabilitation center comes off as rude or disastrous. He’ll say what he thinks and expect everyone else to just deal with it.
Normally, this kind of odd couple might end up obnoxious, with the irresponsible slob making the other person look that much better for the audience. But the brilliance of this show is reflected in how effectively it portrays Luis as an honestly good person who’s just made some bad decisions in his life. The problem is, Luis is too proud to take help from anyone, which complicates the rare opportunity to redeem his mistakes in the form of his cousin’s rehabilitation program.
This includes “Hugs Not Thugs” founder Minister Leonard Payne (The Sopranos‘ Michael Imperioli), one of the few true believers in Luis’ recovery and proper integration to society. Imperioli, who doesn’t often play broad comedy like this, is a joy, as Payne tries to befriend Luis over the season but pays the price for it.
Unbalanced relationships are a recurring theme for the show’s supporting characters. It’s certainly the case for Julio’s ex-girlfriend, Maggie (Michelle Ortiz), with whom he still has a codependent relationship despite the two not being together anymore. But they can’t move on from each other completely, remaining friends even as they evidently desire something more than that.
The chemistry between the couple is a lot of fun; Maggie’s chaotic personality contrasts with Julio’s stubbornness. They could easily get back together if they reached a simple compromise after an honest conversation. But they’re just too immature to do more than just flirt with each other, making for an amusing, will-they-won’t-they romantic tension.
Creators Pat Bishop, Diego Velasco, and Matt Ingebretson delight in building the complexity between these relationships, crafting tightly-constructed scripts that take their characters in subtle but intriguing directions. The show won’t explicitly tell you Luis suffers from depression, for instance, but you see it in his behavior and constant self-hatred as the series progresses.
This Fool also succeeds as a comedy, taking common sitcom beats and turning them on their heads. Julio gets so entangled in self-pity on his birthday that he has a dream where his misery arouses him. Luis’ obsession with Austin Powers, a cute touch that rankles Julio to no end: “People whose only sense of humor is referencing pop culture have no personalities of their own.”
Estrada and Quiñones are wonderful together, expertly portraying a very difficult bond between their characters.
It can also come from anyone, as the cast is filled with energetic secondary characters who constantly steal the show. This Fool‘s real secret weapon is Michael (Cruz Legaspe), a volunteer at Julio’s rehabilitation center. He is introduced yelling and cursing about cupcakes, and that unhinged energy remains with him during the whole series.
Michael’s offbeat screen presence perfectly reflects the show’s unexpected sense of humor. Ever since his (very loud) introduction, the character never ceases to deliver the most random and non-sensical lines out of the whole set of characters, demonstrated in the time he yelled at a couple of grocery store customers to buy his cupcakes to prevent a relapse.
From the religious imagery around Julio’s house (with Virgen de Guadalupe images, very specific to Mexican Catholicism) to the surprisingly organic switching between English and Spanish, the show feels respectful and authentic in its depiction of a real Mexican-American family and its specific struggles – racism, religion, financial hardship. This is clearly a very personal project for Estrada, a story that serves as a vehicle for him to share his story and a way of sharing his brand of humor in a more focused narrative.
With a charming cast, hilarious dialogue, and a strong understanding of its characters, This Fool is a beautifully vivid and textured comedy rare in the streaming era. The show has plenty of heart and laughter, solidifying itself as one of the year’s funniest comedies. And its cultural environment is fleshed out by several lovely new characters, who might just become your favorites.
This Fool is currently streaming on Hulu.