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Difficult People, Season 1 is catnip for the pop culture-obsessed cynic

Difficult People, Season 1 is catnip for the pop culture-obsessed cynic

Difficult People, Season 1
Created by Julie Klausner
Released Wednesdays at 12am (ET) on Hulu

As more and more channels and streaming services enter the original programming game, television shows have become increasingly niche, allowing for a deluge of diverse voices and perspectives to crowd our screens. Although Hulu has been producing original programming for quite some time, before this fall, I had never used the streaming service for anything other than catching up on Scandal. In an environment dominated by Netflix and Amazon Prime, it felt like an afterthought, or even worse, overkill. Now, having saved The Mindy Project from cancellation, the service is starting to prove its worth. And perhaps no show better sums up the value of having Hulu as a viable original programming platform than Difficult People.

The series, originally developed for USA, just concluded its hilarious and incisive first season, kicking off what will hopefully be a long run on the streaming network. It follows show creator Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner playing fictional (and much less successful) versions of themselves, named Julie Kessler and Billy Epstein. Kessler is an aspiring writer who makes her money recapping television shows, while Epstein is an aspiring actor who also works at one of those restaurants that seem to exist only to Instagram your brunch dish. It’s a pretty typical pitch for a show—struggling friends with dreams hang out in New York!—but Klausner and Eichner are anything but typical writers and performers.

The audience for a show like Difficult People is tiny but passionate, with a love for the two stars and their previous ventures (Billy on the Street and Klausner’s Vulture recaps and podcasts), plus an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. Difficult People understands its audience and plays to it constantly, with a Smash reference here and a rap about Capturing the Friedmans there. The show also playfully acknowledges its own limited appeal, such as when Julie’s mother changes the channel to The Big Bang Theory because the characters on Veep talk too fast.

With two charismatic, Jewish leads that are impossible to pick between and a shared executive producer in Amy Poehler, the show invites comparisons to fellow brilliant series Broad City. But Julie and Billy are older and (somewhat) wiser than Abbi and Ilana, and their hijinks much more believable. Even the moments of absurdity (Julie trying to befriend a veteran at a hospital to impress a nemesis, Billy missing out on a callback because he hit a celebrity with a van) still feel like things that might actually have happened to someone in the writers’ room. The series is filmed like a traditional, single-camera sitcom with little in the way of visual flourish, instead letting the writing and acting take center stage. The show’s rapid-fire dialogue lends itself well to repeat viewings, lest an offhand mention of Angela Lansbury or a standing ovation-worthy takedown of Chelsea Handler be missed while one is still laughing at the previous joke. And their clever and acidic one-liners are truly masterful, like this favorite: “Everyone who does a cappella is a sick pervert.”

Klausner and Eichner’s performances are confident and level-headed, never letting the ridiculousness of the things they say turn their characters into parody or cartoons. Eichner plays grounded surprisingly well, given that he is most known for screaming at people in the street about Debra Messing, or for his equally loud-mouthed turn as Craig on Parks and Recreation. It’s refreshing to see an openly gay character whose gayness is an important part of him, but not his defining characteristic or a source of tragedy, and who never once feels like he’s playing up his gayness for a laugh. Billy’s struggle in the third episode with dating a participator, and trying to be less of a mean person, is relatable, and Eichner kills the line reading of, “Never do the right thing!” And though Eichner may be the more seasoned television performer, Klausner is a veteran of the New York cabaret scene, and it shows on-screen. In the finale, she displays an impressive voice and a knack for songwriting by performing an original song, “Bitter on Christmas.” She also provides a myriad of incredible reaction shots just made to be gif-ed by the Tumblr crowd.

In the supporting cast, alt-comedian Cole Escola and Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe make for a surprisingly delightful team as Billy’s coworker and boss, respectively. Escola in particular makes the most of his few moments on-screen as what Julie calls, “a bully’s cliched idea of what a gay man is like.” It’s a delightful satire of the twentysomething twink who speaks entirely in Internet slang and sassy hand gestures. But the true scene stealer of the cast is Andrea Martin, Second City alum and Tony Award winner. She plays Julie’s unorthodox psychologist mom, whose methods include Uber-like surge pricing for her sessions and putting on a community theater show about divorced women’s breakdowns. Martin’s timing and commitment to physical comedy give the show a liveliness and zest that might otherwise be lost if it solely focused on its two world weary leads.

And although the show is devoted almost exclusively to its leads’ exploits, some of its strongest writing and biggest laughs come in sketching brief and memorable portraits of residents of New York. Recognizable faces pop up in almost every scene to play these characters, like Ana Gasteyer, Seth Meyers, Jeffery Self, and Jackie Hoffman. Kate McKinnon delights as a sober magician named Abraca Douglas, and Amy Sedaris once again proves herself the master of character acting as a sporting goods store employee. Even Andy Cohen and Katie Lee Gifford show up as themselves.

If I have one complaint about the show, other than the fact that its first season is already over and I have no vehicle to see these two performers discuss Susan Sarandon’s movie career on a weekly basis, it’s that the episodes never went up at the same time each week. Hulu’s support team literally tweeted at me, saying they didn’t have an exact schedule for release. For a show that is likely to receive little coverage anywhere besides the Internet, Hulu should follow in Netflix’s path and hype exact release times, since Difficult People’s fan base is probably awake, bored, and already staring at their computer screens at midnight Eastern each week. Thankfully, the series has already been renewed for a second season. The first season is a breezy eight episodes that would take less than four hours to consume, so there’s plenty of time to binge and re-binge on the show before it returns.