TV

‘Difficult People’ Is A Much-Needed Guilty Pleasure In These Polite Times

I read an article over the weekend about how millennials are supposedly ruining the workforce. I’m on the ancient end of the millennial spectrum, so I’m always eager to see what’s new in generational criticism, and apparently, one of the article’s complaints is that millennials are over-polite. Again, I’m at the ancient end of the spectrum, so this isn’t something I recognize in myself.

Halfway through the very funny first episode of Difficult People‘s second season (which is presently streaming on Hulu), I pressed pause and sent a message to a younger co-worker in all caps, “HOW DO YOU NOT LOVE THIS SHOW?” She responded, “They were just so MEAN.” I do not understand this complaint.

If you were raised on Seinfeld, then you probably believe, as do I, that self-absorption and meanness are the meat and potatoes of good TV comedy. Sitcoms get a bad rap for the perceived abundance of hugs and lessons, but human sh*ttiness is way more common. At least among the smartest and the best of the best. Look at Cheers, Murphy Brown, CommunityIt’s Always Sunny, Arrested DevelopmentCurb Your Enthusiasm, and You’re the Worst (which my aforementioned co-worker praised, proving she’s not totally anti-meanness) — there are countless times when the characters on those shows were and are awful to each other and the rest of the world. Difficult People gets that. It also gets the scarred beauty of dysfunctional friendships.

In the show, Billy (Billy Eichner) and Julie (Julie Klausner) have a hazardously co-dependent relationship. Together, they are bitter, needy, selfish, and rude. Their hobbies include judging others, making fun of each other, being disappointed, and being exhausted by life as they quest for everyone to shut the f*ck up and get out of their way so they can be famous.

If you can relate, generally, to that kind of relationship and/or you can acknowledge your own semi-terribleness, then Difficult People is probably for you. But if you’re polite and/or put off by meanness, then you may run screaming from the show. And that’s fine, to each their own, but if you do, then you are truly missing out on the delectable experience of feeling like a small part of you is shocked and appalled that you are laughing. That is the definition of guilty pleasure and also a direct reminder that we should maybe selfishly laugh a little more at ourselves and each other, and maybe loosen up a bit.

I suspect that Klausner, the show’s creator and star, realizes that being “mean” may be falling out of favor and becoming taboo, and that the show is a pushback against that. I think Klausner loves to play with that idea as well, pushing the show’s barbed humor deeper under the skin in the second season.

Here is a sampling of some things that happen in the first two episodes: an extended sight gag designed to mock Jane Fonda’s seemingly ageless beauty, Nazi paraphernalia, abortion clinic swag bags, fake charities, fun with deaf people, a trans truther, and the death of Nathan Lane from toilet plague. While some of that may offend, it’s not necessarily made to be offensive, and it doesn’t go so far as to make the characters unlikeable or unrelatable — they’re just terrible enough to feel human… and to laugh at. Imperfect. Really, Difficult People reserves most of its punches for celebrities, ridiculous human behavior, social situations, and its main characters. They aren’t kicking puppies and the show isn’t worthy of a trigger warning.

Unlike the first half of this review, Difficult People isn’t merely a celebration of Billy and Julie’s seemingly random swipes at anything and everything. (Really, they’re like porcupines. Adorable porcupines on an adventure in the big city! Animate that, Pixar!) There is a plot. But while Julie seems singularly focused on finding a way into the entertainment business (first by leveraging her faith and then by trying to leverage the charitable inclinations of others), Billy’s goals seem split. He wants fame too, but he also wants love (or something like it). In the season premiere, that want manifests itself in his desire to not have random sex at the gym; a bad habit that always forces him to abandon said gym in favor of avoiding awkwardness with his exes. To live up to that challenge, though, Billy is forced to date an Old Timey (John Mulaney, in a hilarious guest spot), which is someone who dresses, talks, and acts like they live in the 1930s. Really, it’s the next mutation of the modern hipster. Enjoy the kazoos. In the second episode, Billy again efforts to find love, primarily out of self-preservation after he takes a three-day nap and is forlorn that there was no one to wake him or make sure that he hadn’t died.

Despite their efforts, however, Billy and Julie wind up almost exactly where they were before. And again, that’s relatable. Real life is not awash in self-aware individuals who fix in on their problems and recalibrate their lives to be better people. Not all the time. We f*ck up, we try to get better or we ignore it, and we often wind up in the same place, content only with the people who stand with us and the laughs we share, even when those laughs come from jokes that have a little bite to them. It may not sound aspirational, but simple comforts are alright. Especially when, in the words of Billy, “life is bullsh*t.”

New episodes from the second season of Difficult People will stream every Tuesday on Hulu.

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