Comedies like Difficult People get no respect in the TV business anymore. That is unless the showrunners push and squeeze the show to fit into the traditional three camera, live studio audience box (The Big Bang Theory, Undateable) or they completely eschew all formula in place of innovative storytelling and dramatic interludes (Louie, Catastrophe). Try to put a foot in both worlds and that’s when a show struggles to find a home and, sadly, an audience.
I don’t know how to dredge up the information regarding Difficult People’s ratings, but I can’t imagine that it’s breaking any streaming records. That isn’t a knock on the show’s quality. Having been relegated to Hulu after USA failed to pick it up, it’s a slightly hard sell considering it stars a comic who isn’t widely known outside of New York (Julie Klausner) and another best known—to put it bluntly—for yelling at people (Billy Eichner). Throwing in the fact that the show attempts to push the narrative envelope without completely breaking free of the standard story arc, only makes its chances at survival that much worse.
If you’re reading this, chances are you are watching the show every week, dutifully. But on the off chance you stumbled upon this just to see if you should give Difficult People a try, let me be the one to urge you to check it out. And there’s no better jumping in point than this episode.
In this week’s installment, Klausner plays with the trope of a “holiday episode,” the kind of half-hour that usually centers around a Thanksgiving or Christmas celebration. But like the modern classic episode of The Office that explored the Indian tradition of Diwali, this one kicks off on Yom Kippur. Don’t expect to learn anything about the “Day of Atonement,” however. While Billy and Julie both take part in observing the holiday, Yom Kippur really provides the framework to explore the family dynamics of the main characters.
In Julie’s world, it is trying to divert her mother’s attention away from a psychology student that represents the antithesis of our beloved main character: she’s bubbly, rail thin, and does a military-style bootcamp workout (and she’s played by Maria Thayer). This last bit of information leads Julie to undercut her rival by claiming it mocks the achievements of veterans. From there, she’s down a rabbit hole, promising to bring a veteran friend to this girl’s graduation party and heading off with maniacal glee to a VA hospital in search of a companion.
For Billy, he is back in the world of his estranged brother Garry (played by Fred Armisen). In spite of the Jewish-centric spin, the scene is entirely familiar: a milquetoast-y husband, his hot-tempered and foul-mouthed wife, and their two disengaged children. The furious arguing they do over the dinner table could be transported to any day of the week. As could Garry’s pitiful attempts to reach common ground his with younger brother by insisting that it’s okay that Billy is gay and hoping they can recreate the movie nights of their youth (Billy’s choices: Mannequin and Big Business; Garry’s picks: Fiddler on the Roof and Shoah)>
Everything crumbles from there with Julie’s attempt to convince a WWII vet who is having an HBO series made about him to come to the party turning into the old man insisting they retire to a bathroom so she can suck him off. And Garry stands in as her beloved veteran friend, while wearing a sailor suit from the revival of On The Town. Throw in a lot of jabs at HBO’s programming decisions (passing on Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but moving forward with John From Cincinnati), as well as Billy’s travails with his new, non-Jewish agent, and it becomes clear how much Difficult People is attempting to tweak the sitcom formula of two friends having misadventures while trading bon mots by tossing in their own lives and opinions.
Really, that’s the only way a show like this is going to survive: by making it personal. There is something to be said about trying to find the universal in the world of geeky astrophysicists or sportscasters or the employees of a paper supply company. But if we’re truly looking to TV as a form of escapism, the only real way to pull that off is by putting us in a world we’ve never experienced before. Surely there are thousands of people in the world that can relate to Billy and Julie, but the rest of the world should still be able to delight in seeing how another segment of the population lives. Stop looking for yourself in the lives of fictional characters and just enjoy the ride.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.