TV Minus the TV: The warming misanthropy of Difficult People
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
Albeit to wildly varying extents, all television promotes a universal, primal dictum: “Don’t be a piece of shit.” In the olden times of multi-camera sitcoms and their ilk, this was usually a pretty straightforward notion, gently course-correcting characters who had strayed from the path of goodness by, say, hanging out with the popular kids instead of their real friends, nicking money from mom’s purse, what have you.
As television has matured over the past few decades, the medium hasn’t abandoned the “don’t be a piece of shit” mindset, only interfaced with it in new ways. The recent wave of antihero-driven dramas find the poetry of common life in the unending struggle not to be a piece of shit, even when piece-of-shit-being may seem to be in the undeniable nature of a character. Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, for instance, concluded its second season with the faint glimmer of hope that it’s never too late to start not being a piece of shit, though it requires a lot of hard work to resist our natural piece-of-shit tendencies.
Elsewhere on the internet, another emerging content-streaming behemoth has taken a refreshingly novel approach to the question of accepting and resisting the piece-of-shit lifestyle. As its title may suggest, Hulu’s new series Difficult People does not revolve around characters who spend every day making a conscious effort to do and spread good throughout the world. The lightly fictionalized versions of themselves that stars Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner play on the stellar new comedy fully embrace their own piece-of-shittiness, using it as a power source in the same way that Superman draws strength from our yellow sun.
Difficult People dares to frame deep-seated misanthropy as a reasonable reaction to the indignities of modern living instead of a defect of character, an all-too-common ground that forms the foundation of the deep bond between these lovable cranks. Nothing brings people together quite like making fun of something else.
Klausner has methodically conquered the sprawling world of podcasting with her How Was Your Week series, and Eichner has guest starred on Parks and Recreation in addition to spearheading his own show Billy On The Street. But Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein are nobodies in the world of showbiz, bottom-feeding around the fringes, looking for a way in. Billy’s agent gets him shit auditions that he then proceeds to torpedo, while Julie’s exquisitely bitchy online recaps of no-brow reality programming have failed to secure a sitcom deal for her. With a little more direction and perseverance, perhaps they could get their careers off the ground in earnest, but they’re easily sidetracked by the distant luster of get-rich-quick schemes; in a standout episode, Julie attempts to sell an executive on the concept of bottling the cold, crisp water from public library drinking fountains. To call it even half-baked would charitable. It is, at best, a quarter-baked plan.
But her failure to consider the practicalities of the proposition is hardly the point of the brilliant pitch scene. She tanks the meeting when she remarks on a photo of the executive and his family, to which he responds that his children are named Memphis and Maverick. Julie and Billy sit in stunned silence, confirm these names twice more, and then hastily excuse themselves in a fit of outrage. They do the thing the viewers at home would so love to do, but have too many scruples to. In this respect, they carry out the legacy of Larry David — they know it too, as one episode ends with Julie and Billy turning to one another and bursting out in the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song.
But more than this, the instant understanding between Billy and Julie as to why they must vacate the office immediately communicates a more substantial bond. Their senses of what is and is not worthy of derision have been perfectly calibrated to match one another, and that ultimately brings them closer together. The show takes a stance seldom seen from sitcoms, in which hate acts as a bonding agent between characters rather than love.
Community’s most indelible holiday episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”#, daringly suggested that sharing with loved ones in unifying mockery of lame-o pop culture can be a force no less poignant than sincerity. Difficult People brings this concept to its logical extreme with a pair of characters defined by their bad attitudes and perpetual state of ironic detachment. For a second point of pop-cultural reference, Julie and Billy’s constant impulse to make snide remarks on everything from audience participation to understudies# is reminiscent of muppets Statler and Waldorf, but without the general sense of jolliness. It’s a little touching, how the only thing they don’t seem to outwardly hate is one another.
Difficult People openly embraces Billy and Julie’s dour outlook on life insofar as it makes them the perfect companions for one another, their life partners in hilarious curmudgeonhood. In all fairness, the show’s concept wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t so damn funny all the time#, but it is, so it does. They appeal to the nastier yet eminently familiar side of human nature, all snarky id and #nofilter commentary.
To pervert a phrase from High Fidelity, it’s not what you’re like, and it’s not what you like. It’s what you don’t like.
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