'Billy & Billie': TV Review

Playwright Neil LaBute cleverly tweaks TV conventions

A boy and a girl fall for each other in New York. They are stepsiblings.

The last thing you’d expect playwright and enfant terrible Neil LaBute to create is a rom-com for television. So, he didn’t. Not really. Well, he did, but instead of random New York young people simply having a meet-cute in a bar one night and then battling through the dating phases, he made the two principal characters stepsiblings.

How very Neil LaBute of him.

In Billy & Billie, which premieres Tuesday on DirecTV’s Audience Channel (Ch. 239), the two main characters often call each other brother and sister first, then correct it to “step” – just a bit of coyness perhaps to keep the audience feeling uncomfortable about an admittedly icky situation.

I really hope there’s more coming in Billy & Billie because the portrayal of the actual world these two populate in New York (and how they interact with the people in that world) suggests a signature sensibility that could be interesting in a Girls-like way.

But obviously the early episodes must deal with what it’s like when brother and sister – stepbrother and stepsister from different parents – start dating. Billy (Adam Brody, The O.C.) and Billie (Lisa Joyce, A Master Builder) never really liked each other when their respective families blended. The early years apparently were spent being mean to each other.

When we meet them years later, they are in bed. They did it. It’s awkward, but they both claim no regrets. They riff with each other like old married people. At breakfast the next day, they admit they were both drunk and maybe that played a part in it — but maybe not. Each thinks the other is hot. Perhaps there was some taboo intrigue as well.

Not that this little arrangement isn’t fraught with worry. Billie’s not bringing it up with her best friend. Billy doesn’t seem to have too many close male friends, but he’s not telling them either. How do you say, “I’m dating my stepsister”?

LaBute, who writes and directs the episodes, doesn’t seem in a hurry to tell this story. There’s a languid pace to these half-hours (10 total). That’s not off-putting – I think there’s enough going on in this series to keep it in the rotation (not a given for any show now that the TV world is completely unmanageable). But it’s also clear that Billy & Billie is going to take its sweet time with this elephant.

The first episode even closes with Billy and Billie back in bed after another romp, as she says: “Who’s going to tell mom?”

These are the little nuggets the show dishes out. For example, it isn’t clear until the second episode that both characters are, in fact, not both the offspring of one parent. But they are not. However, after we hear the post-coital statement cited above, we know that both Billy and Billie have learned to call their parents “mom” and “dad” even if that’s not biologically accurate. It adds to the creep factor, which seems to be LaBute’s intent.

On the other hand, much of Billy & Billie tries to establish these two as generally into each other and merely attempting to explain or justify that, well, they’re really not related in a way that would make their romance gross. Or especially gross.

So it’s a relationship show, or a rom-com if you will. Both Brody and Joyce are very good in their roles, with Brody grounding his character (who has no problem getting the ladies) in a relatable, just-a-lucky-nice-guy kind of way. That helps dissuade you that he’s just some player adding “stepsister” to his list of conquests. In Billy’s case, he’s thinking perhaps more long-term.

The issue that Billy & Billie will face going forward – beyond the fact that it’s on DirecTV only – is how long the stepsibling thing will be the center of the series. Granted, the show can make a whole first season about that. And probably should. Reaction and judgment based on the discovery of that information could create a lot of drama and comedy. But long-term? Seems like fans might grow frustrated if that’s the central theme. If Billy and Billie become "regular" relationship partners, the premise will need to expand. In the meantime, LaBute, Brody and Joyce have given us enough reason to keep watching.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

@Twitter: BastardMachine