When the final episode of Difficult People’s first season wrapped up, Hulu went into autoplay mode on me and dropped the first ever episode of Absolutely Fabulous. It was a savvy algorithmic on the streaming service’s part as, if there’s any on screen pairing that Billy and Julie would likely worship in terms of self-interest and immaturity, it is Patsy and Edina.
Watching a few minutes of AbFab also served to remind how Difficult People pulls its punches a little bit. Billy and Julie can be as mean-spirited and catty as their British counterparts, but it is always filtered through a very American feel-good lens.
That the final installment of the first season was holiday-themed only made this even more apparent. We’re supposed to view Gabourey Sidibe’s character as a villain for the way she treats Billy at work and the way she speaks about Julie. Yet during the closing montage, we get to see her in soft lighting and enjoying a romantic moment with her husband, Nate. And, of course, for as much as he insists that his heart didn’t grow three sizes as a result, Billy wasn’t going to leave his niece in the lurch when her dance recital and his big show with Julie came into conflict. That’s not the way us conscience driven folk in the U.S. handle things. We come through for people in the end! Even if we don’t like them very much!
This is a systemic problem in American comedy television. Even a show as seemingly heartless as You’re The Worst pulls viewers out of the moral nosedive at the last minute, even with some knowing winks to the audience or closing shots of Jimmy and Gretchen looking aggrieved and worried. Almost every sitcom falls prey to this, which is strange considering that there is obviously an audience for shows where people don’t learn lessons or grow as people. Witness the reign of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and The League.
What it all comes down to is that Billy and Julie, in spite of their show’s title, are written to be ultimately likeable. These are people you would want to hang out and make snarky remarks about Melissa Gorga with. It’s a reflection of their real-life friendship and it makes you want to root for their characters’ fame and luck in love. You wouldn’t dare say the same about Dennis and Sweet Dee, or Ruxin and Andre.
Likeability isn’t the worst thing in the world, of course. It’s what keeps viewers coming back for more of this show, and surely what helped earn Difficult People a richly-deserved second season. And with the way the show is written and performed, I’m not sure how they could possibly get away from that.
As they start in on the next batch of episodes, though, I’d sure like to see them get a little farther away from the feel-good, everyone walks away from it all with a smile on their face that can’t be wiped away sentiment, even by the surprise appearance of Martin Short gently berating them or a drunk Santa appearing out of the bathroom in Billy’s apartment. They’ve got the platform to get a little edgier and singe the corners of the screen a bit more.
And if not, you’ll not hear me complain too much. Difficult People was a welcome addition to a very, very, very crowded TV landscape this year, and I’m looking forward to its return in 2016.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.