Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s not a lot left to do and say within the 30-minute, struggling creative-type, self-aware comedy genre. Shows like Louie and Girls honed in on the structure and voice of sitcoms like this over the past few years, letting replicators flourish (Broad City) or flounder (Flaked). There’s always a downtrodden hero, a partner in crime, and a plan to somehow “make it,” along with all of the other people who seem to be getting ahead. Some shows have slowly been pushing at the boundaries of what even defines this type of series, like You’re The Worst‘s deeply dark second year, and the cool thing about Hulu’s returning anarchic little sitcom, Difficult People, is that it knows this, and sets its sights on its peers with weaponized glee.
“When did comedies become 30-minute dramas?” Julie Kessler asks best-friend-forever Billy Epstein (Klausner and Eichner, in real life), pissed off that yet another TV recapper has made it big with a hit sitcom on Netflix, this one about a prostitute who raises a trans jockey, which is either called Horse, or Whores. Difficult People lets you decide on your own. Klausner’s show is pretty much hitting all the same beats – the jealousy, turmoil, and stuck-in-a-rut bits are all here – but it motor-mouths its way past any clichéd subplot or woefully misused character with a whiz-bang, head-spinning wit that rings true to the jaded comedians at the show’s center.
As is true to a script more hell-bent on take-downs and verbal gags, there’s still not much plot here. Season 2 of the show picks up after last year’s finale, but it’s an oddly familiar redux of the pilot: Billy and Julie are inappropriate in a public place (this time a gym), Billy meets a cute guy and ruins it, Julie has a chance at a better job and ruins it, and they both go back to making fun of Jesse Tyler Ferguson by the time the credits roll (silver lining: you’ll be fine coming in cold, although season 1 is worth visiting). All television is built around a status-quo reset, but a comedy as middle-finger fun as this has a real chance to stick it to plot and structure as much as it does to Rachel Dolezal. Unfortunately, the second season of Difficult People doesn’t, and there’s some real oh this again disappointment in the opening minutes.
But it’s funny. Really, genuinely, remember-that-one-for-later funny, and that’s rare, given that Difficult People seems to be aiming for a balance between the new era of 30-minute dramedies (like Hulu’s own Casual) and traditional, multi-camera sitcoms, neither of which are all that gut-busting of late. Halfway through episode 2 (which opens with our heroes perusing an abortion clinic’s picket line-crossing gift baskets), I realized most of my notes for the show were quotes. Off-handed, perfectly skewering insights into the entertainment world Julie so desperately wants to join (her idea for Ryan Murphy – American Horror Story: We Thought It Through This Time) on one page, curse-laden tirades that put perfect punctuation points on the duo’s 30-something misery on another.
Difficult People has an edge that’s hard to execute, one that doesn’t feel mean-spirited for the sake of being mean-spirited but still packs a somewhat unique voice (honestly, does Brooklyn have a hipster subculture that hasn’t yet been ransacked by Hollywood?) and provides a perceptive medium within which it can be delivered via its creator/star. Klausner embodies her own writing with an expected ease, as does her pal Billy, managing to make both alter egos likable despite an impressive list of personally despicable attributes. When a few fellow Jewish writers ask her how TV recapping is going, she tells them honestly, “Oh you know, you watch something, you write something, and about 25 weeks later you get a check for $6.” There’s a kernel of frustration and honesty at the center of Difficult People‘s arm-flailing, megaphone ranting, and it makes the show a riot to watch.
This is despite the fact that neither lead is particularly compelling beyond their existence as effective channelers of slightly misplaced rage and frustration. Klausner is nicely prickly, and Billy is a fountain of dying-alone woe, but their most endearing moments come out of the things important in their world (“A gay guy and his best girl friend are fans of mine, who would have known?” Nathan Lane says dryly in episode 2), that make little sense to anyone around them. It’s the illegible-to-everyone-else camaraderie that Difficult People gets weirdly right, and far less the creation of memorable characters.
The show gets by, impressively, without the buddy comedy differentiation of its leads, like in Broad City, although shining similarities between Julie and Billy sometimes run in the face of the writing’s more caustic depravity. Either of them could be saying these things, and either way it’d be funny, but it’s also far less character-defining and memorable, like Lena Dunham’s show-defining voice of a generation musing in Girls, which belongs to Hannah and Hannah only.
The series can make an occasional, incisive misstep as well. In season 2 that’s found mostly in Lola (Shakina Nayfack), whom Nate (Derrick Baskin) hires when Billy doesn’t show up for work for three days. Like Nayfack, Lola is transgender, but also a truther, and her entire character essentially becomes dominated by one of those factors or the other. That’s okay, albeit a bit rudimentary for a show so gung-ho as to turn Mark Consuelos into a fresh-meat-chasing gay guy, but the frustrating part is that neither angle is funny. Nayfack does what she can with the repetitive nature of her lines, but by episode 3, her one-note 9/11 conspiracy theories (“I can bring you down faster than the second tower on Dick Cheney’s command”) stick out like a sore thumb on a show whose humor is otherwise in constant, breezy fluctuation.
Thankfully, a bevy of celebrity cameos return Difficult People to its usual spot near the top of the current TV sitcom pile. The premiere has a few scenes where Julie’s mom Marilyn (Andrea Martin) convinces Tina Fey to direct her video-documented will and testament, all the while having absolutely no idea who she is. Also in funny, lengthy roles are Nathan Lane – who runs afoul of Julie and Billy once they convince him to partake in their version of the Ice Bucket Challenge, the Toilet Hand Challenge – and John Mulaney, as a Brooklyn “Old-Timey” who has a small fortune but rides around town on a penny-farthing, much to Billy’s disappointment.
Throughout all of their shenanigans and escapades, Klausner never excuses Julie and Billy’s eye-roll-to-the-world behavior as something worthwhile; the two are up-in-arms protestors for any cause they deem worthy, usually ones that help them personally, until action is required. “I swear to God, if I go to synagogue and I don’t make a show business connection, I’m going to fucking kill myself with a chainsaw,” Julie woes while in said synagogue. Billy instantly responds: “Oh please, then you’d have to go to Home Depot.” Sort of like the web culture she deconstructs and lambasts in her weekly TV roundups, the real Julie has created a show about the lazy, at-arms-length online culture without drowning in any sort of gross self-importance.
Difficult People mocks and guts its targets – sometimes with the awkward stumbling of a chainsaw, mostly with the precision of a scalpel – but it does so without bringing attention to the fact that it’s so good at doing its job. “Please don’t ruin a moment by acknowledging it,” Julie tells her boyfriend Arthur (James Urbaniak) after he points out how much she’s helped him get out of a work problem. I’ve probably already broken her rule, repeatedly, but I’ll take it to heart now.
Fast-paced and motormouthed as it is, Difficult People still finds ways to make a pair of despicable, difficult friends entirely relatable and pal-worthy, even when a few of its shots fall short of the bullseye.