If DirecTV’s Audience Network is trying to make a name for itself, Billy and Billie is probably not the right show for it to bet on. From reliably controversial filmmaker and playwright Neil LaBute, the original half-hour series is marketed as yet another romantic comedy — with a twist. Billy and Billie, which premieres Tuesday, follows two similarly named young adults as they stumble through the beginnings of a relationship and slowly, somewhat reluctantly, fall in love. The big obstacle? They are step-siblings.
This inane hook is what’s supposed to drive viewers to the show, but it’s probably not going to be enough to make them stick around. Billy and Billie pulls a bait-and-switch, as the pilot episode focuses on Billy (Adam Brody, who plays yet another sarcastic jokester who loves bands like Wilco) and Billie (Lisa Joyce) the morning after they’ve hooked up. All that’s established is that they hadn’t seen each other in a while, reconnected while very drunk, and went home together — it doesn’t yet reveal that they are step-siblings (though it’s not a spoiler; it’s what the show is premised on). The sort-of couple stumbles into some typical morning-after problems: Billy seems unsure of whether he should stick around, and Billie is unsure about whether she wants him to stick around. They have breakfast together and she suggests they take it “really slow, super slow — like almost no movement at all.”
In keeping with that theme, the series itself remains slow moving (the opening scene is almost two straight minutes of Billy getting out of bed) and fails to build momentum, which may have something to do with the fact that LaBute originally conceived the story as a play. It shows through the dialogue — Billy and Billie is very dialogue heavy, which could work to its advantage if the dialogue weren’t so annoyingly banal (“Do you want to come over?” “Do you mean like, over over?”) — but the style doesn’t successfully translate to the screen.
Fortunately, Billy and Billie isn’t bad enough to write off immediately, but it does often court awfulness, occasionally deploying cheap jokes (Billy’s coworkers making terrible racist “jokes” at the expense of their Japanese colleague) and then, a few scenes later, attempting in earnest to create realistic, mature dialogue between two emotionally stunted adults. During the first three episodes, Billy and Billie go back and forth on their “relationship,” unsure if it’s a good idea (but slipping back into bed with each other regardless). “People don’t do it for a reason, you know, get together with their siblings,” Billie spits out at one point, implying that the typical brother/sister arguments they have is the main reason siblings don’t get together, not because, well, they’re siblings. But Billy is quick to correct her: “Step. We are step-siblings.” Like that makes it all better.
BIlly and Billie doesn’t go too far into the characters’ background — we know that their parents got together when the kids were young, and that they drifted apart at some point in their adult lives — so there’s nothing to suggest that they should be together. At times, Billy and Billie plays like a lesser You’re the Worst, in that it’s about a screwed-up couple who will probably hurt each other more than they will help. The difference is that You’re the Worst knows how to make an irritating couple seem appealing, and get viewers rooting for them. Billy and Billie‘s main couple is only irritating and childish; conversations that are frustrating for them to have are even more frustrating for us to watch. I suppose that’s where most of the comedy is supposed to come from (other comedic situations involve their mom/stepmom showing up to Billie’s apartment while Billy is still there), but it’s hard to put aside how obnoxious they are for long enough to find humor in their silly arguments. (At one point, Billie gets so upset about Billy putting her on speakerphone in his empty apartment that she yells “Fuck you” and hangs up. OK.)
Of course, an odd (and taboo) relationship between two step-siblings is a weighty premise for LaBute to tackle, and he deserves some credit for doing so in a light, nonjudgmental way. The problem is that the step-sibling angle is the weakest aspect of a series that is full of weaknesses, from dialogue to pace, and even transitions (scenes begin with a typed out slugline). Perhaps the show will pick up momentum when Billy and Billie share the news with friends and family, but I’m doubtful that many viewers will stick around long enough to find out.