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Difficult People Delivers a Dose of Political Satire

United by a love of sarcasm, two friends take on a regressive world in the show's third season.

Barbara Nitke / Hulu

In September of this year, Gabi Dunn and Allison Raskin, two twenty-something YouTube stars who host a popular talk show about being “co-dependent besties,” will publish their first YA novel. An epistolary compendium of imagined e-mails between friends, it will be titled I Hate Everyone But You. The basic premise of which is, well, the tightest bonds are formed from mutual acrimony—that any two schmucks can adore the same books and movies and Haribo varietals, but it is in specific, shared disgust that two people become truly magnetized. Playful animosities are where the us slices off from the them, it’s where gauntlets are thrown down and the stakes are heightened, personal.

In Dunn and Raskin’s book, which is told from the perspective of two college freshmen, this joint scorn for the world outside their double-helix is intended to come off as charming, if not a bit callow. Like any other protective shell forged in adolescence, blithe, chirpy hatred is supposed to be a phase, a hardness you grow out of, a meanness that stops looking cute around the time your smile lines stop bouncing back into shape. Adulthood requires a backbone, but also a softening (at least towards humans in your day-to-day life). Once you live long enough with your own defects, it becomes much less fun to find the emotional fontanelles of others and push on them to see if they give.

Difficult People, which debuted the first three episodes of its third season on Hulu this week, is a riotously funny comedy about two thirty-something friends who hate everyone and everything but each other. They see no reason to abandon this life philosophy until the day they die (where one will almost certainly make a joke at the other’s funeral). It stars Billy Eichner, the absurdist comedian who barks at strangers as part of his pop-culture game show Billy on the Street (now migrated to Hulu) and who played the lovably misanthropic Craig on Parks and Recreation, and his real-life BFF Julie Klausner, a bawdy redhead who hosts the garrulous podcast “How Was Your Week?” (which just re-emerged from a year-long hiatus), where she cracks wise about topics as various as Terry Gross, depressive episodes, Sondheim, and the Cannibal Cop at lightning-round speed.

On Difficult People, the pair play jaded New Yorkers, also named Billy and Julie, who are perhaps less-successful sliding doors versions of themselves, the people they might have been had their roads not diverged into TV deals, late night interviews, and published books (Klausner has written two). “Billy” Epstein is a striving actor who waits tables at a chichi Manhattan restaurant (owned by Gabourey Sidibe, who brings a droll deadpan to the restaurant scenes). He is on a constant and fruitless hunt for a boyfriend. “Julie” Kessler is a wannabe comedienne and screenwriter toiling in the content mines as a TV recapper well into her thirties. The two have big dreams, but do not suffer from delusions of grandeur; they share a keen sense of just how hard it is to make it in this town, and they are willing to cut corners (and other people) if they have to in order to get ahead.

In Seinfeldian fashion, Julie and Billy tend to thwart their own ambitions before anyone else has the chance. Their cartoonish failures are almost always unforced errors caused by a collision of ruthlessness and solipsism. For example, in season two, they accost Nathan Lane in a public bathroom and ask him to stick his hand in the toilet for part of an Internet “charity” campaign they are staging with hopes to go as viral as the ice bucket effort. When Pat Kiernan announces on NY1 that Lane has died of a bowl-water related disease, they gain notoriety not for philanthropy but for endangering public health. “Fucking charity,” Billy mumbles as the episode ends. In the Difficult People universe, the only downside to any action is one that dents Billy and Julie’s self-interest. Any other outcome is fair game. They are tribalistic, selfish and merciless—and yet, it is all extremely fun to watch.

I didn’t always feel this way about Difficult People. Watching the first season, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the blurred area between satire and cruelty, where Eichner and Klausner’s comedy lives. When the show began, the tone was more inward-facing and breathless than it is now, jam-packed with obscure, cutting cultural references that flew out of each episode like a springy green-eyed viper shoved into a potato chip can. A typical exchange from season one went something like this

Julie: As far as the whole be nice to celebrities thing, I’m not in favor of it, particularly because Chrissy Teigen just weighed in on the Greek elections.

Billy: Oh, well, she doesn’t have quite the shrewd political mind of a Naya Rivera.

Their compounded ressentiment felt like wet cement, like a centrifugal, binding force of “the world is unfair to us and it will pay.” While often hilarious (the first season is a cornucopia of quotable one-liners), this outlook could verge on acrid. Bitterness is often the mother of comedy, but it can be hard to swallow quip after quip with no room for sweetness or air. Difficult People ambled into territory that was somewhat occupied by Broad City (a half-hour comedy about two eccentric city strivers whose idiosyncratic friendship is an epic romance), but seemed to lack the latter’s warm heart. Where Abbi and Ilana bumped up against a cruel world as a unit, Julie and Billy were often cruel when bumped into.

But then, in the second season, something shifted. The jokes felt more confident, less weaponized. Difficult People expanded its universe, and allowed oxygen to flow around its secondary characters: Marilyn, Julie’s narcissistic therapist mother (Andrea Martin, doing some of the best comedic work on television), Arthur (James Urbaniak), Julie’s beleaguered boyfriend who wears a bowtie and works in programming at a dying PBS affiliate, Matthew, a jaunty little imp who is Billy’s fellow waiter and professional foil (Cole Escola, who is gifted with impeccable comic timing), and Lola, a bellicose transgender waitress at Billy’s cafe who believes 9/11 was an inside job (Shakina Nayfack). In allowing more characters into their judgmental bubble, the show makes Billy and Julie’s self-absorption all the more poignant; they are not just failing together, they are part of a bizarre constellation of ambition and need, support and sabotage.

Perhaps that season’s funniest—and most tender—episode is “Italian Piñata,” in which Julie and Billy go to New Jersey and discover that, at a local bar outside of the five boroughs, they can take vacations from being themselves. Julie finds girlfriends at long last in a gaggle of  women with teased manes and leopard coats who mistake her for one of their own. (Later, she tells her mother and Arthur that she now “identifies as Italian,” a joke that really landed at the height of the Rachel Dolezal news cycle.) Billy pretends to have only recently come out as gay, in order to woo a macho, dim-witted suitor who wants to teach him about LGBT history. One of the best gags involves Billy pretending to be riveted in a West Village shop as his date asserts that the Stonewall riots “happened right after Princess Diana died.” The humor is crass and nimble as ever, but reveals a lonesomeness at the core of Julie and Billy’s shared cynicism. They belong nowhere, really, except to each other. Their distrust of the world is like a fortress, and throughout the second season we get to see glimpses of why they have built up their defenses so high.

If the show’s earlier seasons sometimes wallowed in sarcasm, then the third season is its most mature iteration of the show yet, and where it has finally found its groove and its glory zone: Billy and Julie’s gimlet barbs have become political. The latest season of Difficult People takes place in a vague future where we are still living under Trump, but we’re even deeper in. An early episode centers around Mike Pence’s plan to pay any gay citizen $6,000 to convert to heterosexuality. Billy of course, tries to take the money and run. Meanwhile, Julie auditions as a cigarette girl for Woody Allen’s new TV project. She asks if the show is set in the past; the auditioner answers, “No, Woody just thinks cigarette girls still exist and black people don’t.” She then must pretend to turn down the job when confronted by the crusading leader of a Women-Against-Woody-Allen protest group. Another plotline in the same episode involves Billy and Julie walking around town with a giant fake “strike rat,” as they realize it can get them into the hottest restaurants and shows in town. (One is David Blaine’s final magic trick, “Suicide”: “It’s supposed to be amazing,” Billy says in line).

They exploit labor unions for their own gain, which is about as monstrous as anything they’ve ever done, even in 2017. They are the victims of oppression and also deeply exploitative of it, all in the span of 30 minutes. It is pungent satire; their anger has taken on the national mood, and for once their fury toward the system feels in concert with, rather than in opposition to, the greater world. In 2017, so many of us have become difficult people, the rage that we held on a low simmer has boiled off into vapor. Now, when I watch Difficult People, I still see Billy and Julie as tragic clowns, but their bile makes sense to me. Julie and Billy have always lived inside a comic universe where the world kicks them in the teeth. Now I root for them to spit back.