In the world of Difficult People, the cutting comedy returning this week to Hulu, the game is rigged against Julie (Julie Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner), but perhaps only because they rigged it against themselves. As their friends find success, the two struggling comedians feign interest in jobs that pay the bills and exchange acerbic quips about B-list celebrities on the streets of New York.
Billy is a waiter who ignores his customers or jumps into their conversations to insult them. “I’m on the phone,” he calls over his shoulder when one diner tries to flag him down. Meanwhile, Julie recaps TV shows online, as Klausner — the show’s creator — once covered The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for Vulture. In the season-two opener, a fellow writer, recently hired by HBO, eyes Klausner’s character (last name Kessler) with manufactured concern. “How’s recapping?” she asks as if someone has died.
Like other shows about terrible people, Klausner’s series cuts both ways — we can enjoy Billy and Julie’s rude behavior because their world refuses to reward them for it. Offhand jokes develop into smart visual gags and absurd plots with the gusto of Arrested Development or 30 Rock — and each absurdity seems to confirm that the world goes out of its way to make Billy and Julie suffer. “Every antique dealer is a creep. They always have that one back room full of racist paraphernalia and Nazi shit,” says Julie, trying to cheer up her PBS-employed boyfriend (James Urbaniak), who’s been tasked with creating a “sexy spinoff of Antiques Roadshow.” When Julie attempts to infiltrate the media power brokers at a local temple in order to move her career ahead, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she winds up posing for a photo in a room full of Third Reich memorabilia, destroying her chances with the powerful Jews she longs to impress.
This season’s gags are tighter and more pointed, powering stronger narrative and character arcs. In an episode devoted to Julie and Billy’s quest for fame at any cost, an unlikely encounter with Broadway darling Nathan Lane leads to the bowels of a public bathroom, a faux-charity stunt, and a hilarious screaming match. “Life is bullshit,” says Billy when both he and Julie have failed to get their way. “I know,” answers Julie. “My apartment’s as small as ever, you’re still single, and we killed Nathan Lane.” They even make his death about themselves.
The show is at its best when it cuts to the emotional quick of Julie and Billy’s neediness. In the strongest of the first three episodes, a bad discount perm funded by Julie’s equally self-obsessed psychologist mother (Andrea Martin) fuels a half-hour send-up of Jersey guidos, predatory dating in gay bars, and Billy and Julie’s longing for acceptance. The perm leaves Julie looking so Jersey that she actually befriends Jersey girls, proving to herself that she can get along with other women. And Billy uses Coming Out Day in Hoboken to attract handsome gay men who’re only interested in the recently straight. “Lying about who we are made us accept who we really are — after we changed it,” says Billy with a degree of seriousness. (Episode bonus: on-point jokes about New Yorkers who treat Jersey like another planet altogether. “How the hell were we supposed to know that the PATH train took 10 minutes?” Julie says, after they wind up three hours early to a party on the other side of the Hudson.)
There’s something sweet about Billy and Julie’s firm belief in each other, even as their codependent friendship helps destroy their ability to find success or connect with others. When Julie isn’t accepted to a women’s comedy festival, Billy’s “What the fuck?” is filled with genuine and compassionate disbelief. Or, at the gay bar in Jersey, Julie attempts to bolster Billy’s self-esteem by heckling the bartender, a stand-in for everyone who ignores them: “Hey, Grease Live! Pay attention to my friend!” They’ve built a two-person family to the exclusion of actual family — like Julie’s overcritical mother and Billy’s brother (portrayed by Fred Armisen in season one) — or serious boyfriends like Arthur, who dotes on Julie and calls her “Noodles.” That Julie manages to maintain a relationship with Arthur is both inexplicable and humanizing, part of the extended joke of the series itself.
Eichner demonstrates new range in his portrayal of Billy. He gives his character all the sarcastic bite of his turns on Parks and Recreation and Billy on the Street, yet Billy’s more vulnerable, with softer emotional edges. Eichner plays second fiddle to Klausner, since Billy is more often depicted as Julie’s (slightly) better half rather than navigating the world on his own. That’s partly because this difficult duo only makes sense in the context of each other and partly because Billy’s troublemaking is (somehow) less reprehensible than Julie’s. Last season, Difficult People did a commendable job of emphasizing Billy’s career ambitions over his queerness, treating his romantic interests with a refreshing matter-of-factness.
This balance has started to shift. He’s struck up — and tried to maintain — relationships with some of the season’s many guest stars, including Dancing With the Stars winner and deaf model Nyle DiMarco, and comedian John Mulaney as a rich “Old Timey” — a caustic swipe at hipsters who manifest their hipness by way of a penny-farthing rather than skinny jeans.
While Julie and Billy’s easy bitchy patter endears them to each other, both characters fit right at home in the pantheon of self-obsessed, self-sabotaging principals on television today. If Julie had the ambition to campaign for president, she wouldn’t be far from the foul-mouthed Selina Meyer on Veep. In her 20s, she might have fit into the myopic world of Girls, but Hannah Horvath would have hated her. If anything, Hannah might grow up to be a kind of Julie Kessler — self-assured, somewhat talented, but so utterly absorbed by her own successes and failures that the world throws up its hands in frustration and moves on.
As the parade of Girls think pieces reminds us, the world isn’t kind to loud, curvy, egocentric women who refuse to change or see the error of their ways. And while there’s plenty that’s reprehensible in both Dunham’s Horvath and Klausner’s Kessler, their most terrible qualities make them interesting, rich characters — the kind of women that screen actors rarely have the chance to play. Julie is everything women aren’t allowed to be — and says everything women aren’t allowed to say — without facing damnation from all quarters. Klausner has smartly tapped into the subversive through-line of shows like Veep and Girls by pushing back against the redemption narrative; we expect to see difficult people — especially difficult women — reform over the course of a season. While the character of Julie isn’t rewarded for her behavior, she’s not about to change her ways to make you like her, either — that is, of course, unless there’s something in it for her.
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