Over at The New Republic earlier this week, I wrote about how FX’s new comedy Legit, which premieres tonight at 10:30, encapsulates an underlying theme that animates all of the network’s programming: what does it mean to be a legitimate and successful American man? While not ever FX watcher is loyal to the network’s entire lineup, if you drop in on its comedies and dramas, you’ll find men dealing with everything from how to be better fathers to their children than their own were, coping with the consequences of sexual double-standards, and grappling with downward mobility or weaker economic positions than their partners. Legit, an enormously agreeable show that’s simultaneously sweeter and tarter than many of FX’s offerings, fits in that formula and expands it in some exciting new directions.
Legit has a relatively simple premise: a stand-up comic, Jim (stand-up comedian Jim Jeffries), who lives with his divorced friend Steve (Second City alumn Dan Bakkedahl), who he met when Jim came to live with Steve’s family as an exchange student (Steve tells his mother, who hates Jim, at one point that “I wanted a Swedish female!”), decides to become more “legitimate,” with a vague sense of what that might mean. But he finds some purpose when Steve encourages Jim to reconnect with Steve’s younger brother Billy (DJ Qualls), who has muscular dystrophy, and who is confined to an assisted-living facility. Deciding that Billy, who is 31, has been overly coddled and needs to experience more of life, Jim first takes it upon himself to break Billy out of the facility for occasional adventure, and then decides to move Billy in with him and Steve and begin caring for him. The show, run by Peter O’Fallon, starts off a bit rough around the edges. But it grows quickly in its first couple of episodes, and Legit‘s portrayal of both life with disability and the friendships among maturing men has the potential to be something special.
To start with, it’s very funny. Many of the stories are drawn directly from Jeffries’ experiences with his friend with muscular dystrophy or O’Fallon’s helping to care for his father, who died of ALS. Much of the punch of Jim’s stories comes from his character’s utter lack of social awareness. Sometimes, he’s hilariously entitled, spinning out a fantasy about having a child with a terminally ill woman who will die once their child is old enough to get him beers from the fridge, saving him from having to be a good husband, and guaranteeing that his child will always be grateful. And in other moments, that lack of respect for social norms mean Jim’s capable of caring for Billy without inhibition, whether he’s helping the other man urinate because he’s decided the bottle Billy uses is a genius invention, or helping him through the awkwardnesses of Skpye dates and cybersex. Jim may believe that Billy’s going to be the perfect wing man, and that taking him out and helping him develop a social life may mean that he’s “going to get so much pussy.” But despite his frattish inclinations, Jim spends a lot more time hanging out with Billy at home than taking him out and making use of him. If selfishness set Jim on his quest to become legitimate, it seems that once he’s started visiting Billy again, Jim finds himself in it for the pure enjoyment of Billy’s company—and the joy of tweaking Billy’s mother, Janice.
Steve is an appealing straight man to Jim’s wildness, and an ongoing illustration of the limitations of Jim’s approach to life, and the practical realities of caring for someone with muscular dystrophy. When the two men take Billy on an exuberant road trip to a Nevada brothel so he can lose his virginity, they deposit him in a room with a cheerful prostitute (and Jeffries real-life girlfriend), only for Steve to realize that he’s forgotten to undress his brother. After Jim hands out dating tips to Steve and Billy, Steve initially finds success with an attractive woman from his office by complimenting her eyes, only to end up stuck with variations on that theme after he finds he doesn’t have anything else to talk to her about. Good intentions and low inhibitions aren’t enough, as it turns out, to navigate every situation or to negotiate a truly fulfilling life.
While it might have been preferable to have an actor with muscular dystrophy playing Billy, Qualls turns in a very funny, physically astute performance that’s enriched rather than inhibited by Billy’s limited mobility. And Legit‘s done better in other areas. Nick Daley, who has Prader-Willi Syndrome, as Billy’s roommate Rodney, who does an impressive Donald Trump impersonation and is a genius at Wii bowling, skills that help him fit in just fine during a rager at Jim and Steve’s house, and the morning after, when he, Steve, Jim, and Ramona, a nurse from the long-term care facility marathon Dance Moms. And Daley isn’t the only one, though I’ll avoid discussing those other performances until the episodes have aired. As the world of the show expands, Legit has the potential to become a showcase for actors with disabilities, an important service for viewers at home, and a key niche in the Hollywood economy, where work for actors with disabilities is often highly episodic. That its only real competition is Glee says a great deal about the state of Hollywood’s representations and employment of actors with either physical or intellectual disabilities.
I hope to see Legit do better on its female characters, who initially are sorted into buzzkill and saint categories, though subsequent episodes show signs of improvement and warmth. But it’s exciting to see Legit get better with each of the three episodes sent to critics in advance of the premiere. And it’s even better to see a show do the right thing in giving work to actors with disabilities and putting issues like sexuality, independent living, and nursing care on television, and to do it with charm, love, and wicked humor, rather than the taste of spinach or the condescension of a Very Special Episode.