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Tender, caring writing helps 'Idiotsitter' avoid brutal, total craziness

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic

"Idiotsitter," a rude and quasi-heartwarming new sitcom imported by Comedy Central from its digital CC:Studios, stars creators Charlotte Newhouse and Jillian Bell as a woman in need of work and the all-but-feral super-rich girl she is hired to watch. They will have something to teach other, eventually, but they will also forget what they have learned so they can learn it again. That's how TV works.

Newhouse is Billie, well-educated and severely unemployed, applying to wealthy Kent Russell (Stephen Root) for what she has been led to believe is a job taking care of a child but which turns out to be "more of a court-appointed guardian" for his troublesome daughter, Gene ("like Eugene Levy, just the Gene part"), played by Bell. Gene is under house arrest and required to pass her GED to stay out of jail, though, as she prefers to understand it, Billie is not being hired to teach here but "to be my friend." This is practically the premise for an '80s film comedy, with Goldie Hawn or Eddie Murphy, and indeed, the first episode plays almost through the arc of such a movie, lacking only a last scene in which the characters acknowledge that their time together has changed both for the better.

It's a modern sort of comedy, studied in the three Ps: partying, pot-smoking and puking. It is happy to be inappropriate: There are jokes referencing date rape, figuratively, in each of the two episodes available for review. Billie does get "hoofied," with a mix of Rohypnol and animal tranquilizer, but the point of this is only to demonstrate how completely divorced Gene is from an ordinary sense of right and wrong, and to get Billie into a bathtub trading Austin Powers impressions with her.

There is strength in female dyads at the moment — "Broad City," "Playing House" "Garfunkel and Oates" — and Bell and Newhouse, who met as members of L.A.'s Groundlings Theatre, have the benefit of actual friendship and hours logged together. Even as enemies, they play easily together.

Bell, who shared a memorable fight scene with Jonah Hill in "22 Jump Street," the movie, can seem dangerously unhinged at times; there is something changeable in her eyes and something unstoppable in her manner that, mixed with a tendency to pop up suddenly, adds a wash of horror to the comedy. Gene's behavior can be so unsettling that we will have to be — and will be —- reminded every so often that there is a not-unsympathetic person in there, one whose character and problems and fact-free view of the world are not entirely of her own making..

"No one ever gets mad at you," says Billie, diagnosing the trouble, "because no one ever expects anything from you."

Because none of these people quite speak the same language, their lines have a tendency to ricochet off each other; dialogue caroms in from odd angles, and that half of what everyone says is either willfully or helplessly misunderstood, which makes the action fast and progress slow. And so when characters do connect, as when they excitedly agree on a movie they like, or are faced with some critical situation where cooperation is the only way through, you can almost feel the concordance, the exhilaration and relief. And although the actors are young, they're possibly not as young as Gene and Billie are supposed to be, which makes the characters' lack of progress in the world feel all the more pronounced. (As much goes for Steve Berg's fuzzy-edged Chet, Billie's "best-nonsexual friend," an overgrown toddler with adult urges.)

For all the self-protective aggressiveness and passive aggressiveness on display, "Idiotsitter" is tender at its core and toward its characters; it stands up for education and for paying attention. Kent may be a distracted father — having hired Billie, he and his wife (Jennifer Elise Cox), an empty head through which stray thoughts blow through, take off to Japan for "a breathing workshop" — but he is not an uncaring one. With her Alice in Wonderland bangs and face-swallowing spectacles, Billie, if the relatively normal one — she does confess to writing "Ladyhawke" fan fiction — is a lost child too, looking for a home. Gene acts out because she knows she doesn't know anything the adult world deems worth knowing. The writing doesn't oversell these points, but it does make them, and it's what keeps "Idiotsitter" on the right side of brutal, random craziness.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 14, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Tender, caring, brutal and crazy - Comedy Central's `Idiotsitter' has a heart at its core despite aggressive wackiness. - TELEVISION REVIEW" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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