‘Difficult People’: TV Review
A little bitterness goes a long way in Hulu’s new series about two catty Manhattan comics.
They love each other, even if the world doesn’t return the favor. And that’s perfectly fine with Big Apple stand-ups/BFFs Julie Kessler (Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner), who share a similarly abrasive view of humanity. Anyone who isn’t them is a target for their disdain. That woman at the $120+ afternoon matinee for Annie who shushes them for cursing in front of her two children? Horrible. The environmentally conscious executive who "bottles" water in biodegradable paper cartons? Blech! Chelsea Handler? Talentless wench. And the list goes on.
The joke is that both Julie and Billy are barely in a position to wield this myopic privilege. At best, they’re second-tier talents forced to make ends meet with day jobs that they also hold in contempt. Billy is a waiter at a restaurant run by Nate (Derrick Baskin) and Denise (Gabourey Sidibe), who keep him on, it seems, mainly because he’s a good sounding board for their own derision. And Julie is a scornful television recapper who tries to leverage her fleeting social media infamy into something approaching success. Mostly she just draws the ire of the people she criticizes, like special guest star Marc Shaiman, who is none-too-pleased about her thoughts on Smash.
It’s easy to see why the series, created by Klausner, has the imprimatur of executive producer Amy Poehler, whose own shtick often trades on a bug-eyed tartness that Klausner and Eichner, with their relatively lower profiles, can take to more boundary-pushing extremes. A scene in which Billy continuously ignores the wrap-up-my-food request of a cancer-stricken woman (guest star Rachel Dratch, looking even more Debbie Downerish than usual) who’s late for chemotherapy is particularly morbid and hilarious.
The acridness is almost the whole show, though there’s some attempt in the three episodes (of eight total) sent out for review to give Julie and Billy some human shades. This is most successful in Julie’s relationship with her live-in boyfriend Arthur (Hal Hartley alum James Urbaniak), a straight-laced PBS employee who addresses his galling lady love by a number of pet names and genuinely shows her a devotion that, given her behavior, she in no way deserves. In the second episode, entitled "Devil’s Three-Way," an abortive group sex encounter leads to a very tender moment between the couple that feels epochal in this context for its unabashed sincerity. It’s a brief, but welcome respite from what otherwise proves to be a tiresome succession of bitchery.
The longer we stay in Julie and Billy’s company, the more the initial thrill of their uncensored approach to life dissipates. There’s some lip-service paid to where the duo’s innate rancor comes from. Julie’s hypnotist-psychologist mother Marilyn (Andrea Martin) is, in many ways, worse than her daughter in the self-absorption department. (A whole subplot in one episode is dedicated to her vain, botched attempt at plastic surgery.) And Billy seems on the verge of confessing some deep-rooted father issues during a sequence in which he auditions for the remake of 1988’s body-switching non-classic Vice Versa. Mostly, though, the characters are hollow vehicles for delivering insults (what BoJack Horseman might refer to as "sick burns") about anyone and anything that rubs them the wrong way. There’s only so much glib bitterness one can take.