It’s a Small World, After All: “Difficult People” and Intimacy

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difficultpeoplepicJulie (Julie Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner) want to be seen as mean, bitter, small people that live a small world. As Inkoo Kang posited, “Difficult People is a sitcom about smallness.” To embrace the title as a fundamental part of their identity is a form of myopia that they are proud of, at least externally and publicly. Its first season, which premiered on Hulu in August 2015, established that bitterness and restrictive world view and arguably sense of self was not merely a character detail but the character itself; the pilot opens with Julie and Billy furiously walking down streets of New York yelling at people, ordering strangers out of the way, and making cutting remarks passing by, only to convene and… continue to do the same thing, but together. But though it wasn’t the focus of the first eight episodes, that there was a textural layer to this “haterade”, and emotional one no less, was there from the beginning. Difficult People is not only about small people and smallness, but small people continually struggling with to what degree they want to reach out and, like unlike the audience numbers of NBC’s Hannibal, grow.

Dealing with the emotional or psychological stasis of people, difficult or otherwise, has become a fixation of much of contemporary television, with such works as Mad Men essentially asserting, “Nah, people don’t really change, we’re all fucked.” But this subject is most frequently considered within the context of serial dramas, not sitcoms. Sitcoms are predicated on character change, however marginal, from the beginning to the end of an episode, and it often feels like it’s the only consistent arc that showrunners focus on.

Thus, Julie and Billy are paradoxically interested and totally apathetic with change. They are both completely content with who they are – bitter, acidic, selfish, shortsighted – but just as frequently dip their toes into the water of what it would be like if they were people who did want to change and who did want a form of dynamic that seems outwardly foreign to both of them: intimacy.

Billy juggles with his judgmental attitude in the first episode of the second season, “Unplugged”, dating an Old Timey guy (John Mulvaney) who would be fodder for a Vox article and gradually seriously contemplating how to navigate this kind of relationship, though its beginnings were both lascivious (read: gym sauna encounter) and economically suspect (Old Timey guy is rich as hell). He goes so far as to realize that, no, this developing relationship is not right for him, but he will nonetheless be a normal, dignified person and give Old Timey guy the respect he deserves and properly break up with him. He learns that Old Timey guy is actually a Neo-Nazi, and there goes his good will as far as breakups go. And yet, despite his alleged small mindedness, he decides that, yes, maybe it’s worth trying to date one of the guys with whom he’s grown textually intimate. He becomes comfortable with, as he says, the “familiarity” of being at a family dinner and engaging in flirty, casual repartee, hanging around the kitchen together. Billy, unknowingly or otherwise, reaches for tenderness. And then he gets dumped. The lesson, supposedly, being “tenderness isn’t worth it”.

Julie is no less of an outsider looking in, using her snark as a defense mechanism, and what she’s looking in on is not much more different than what Billy looks in on: authentic relationships. In “Italian Piñata”, for the first time accepted by a group of women, she dons the persona of a slightly sharper sounding (aurally) Italian woman from New Jersey. She’s finally a “girl’s girl”, something she publicly scorns, but secretly wants. “Everything that made me unacceptable as a New York Jew is celebrated as New Jersey Italian,” she says with a mix of pride and uneasiness. Intimate camaraderie is as strange and exotic for her as Naomi Watts’s turn as Princess Diana, one can surmise.

And not dissimilarly, at the core of certain aspect of Julie’s caustic attitude is her relationship with her mother, a hate/sort of love/but mostly hate relationship reminiscent of Lucille and her progeny on Arrested Development. Their dynamic is examined in two different ways: in “Patches”, where Billy moves into Marilyn’s apartment, catalyzing the kind of relationship Julie wish she had with her mother, and in “36 Candles”, where Julie and her mother drink together and bond. That the two episodes follow one another consecutively is telling for both characters, in a very armchair sociologist manner: they want and what to give what anyone wants – love, respect, vulnerability. And when they receive pushback from that, the shell becomes harder, but they never really stop trying to reach outside of their tiny world.

It’s the same kind of gay ambivalence that permeates Adam Goldman’s The Outs, where growing is a lot of effort, and while the characters are told by external events and actions time and again that such an abstract concept is like masturbation (a lot of work for a little pleasure), their reaction is two paradoxically twofold: become bitterer, meaner, but more vulnerable, and sensitive, and in search of what they think they can’t find in others.

But the relationship that Julie and Billy have is all that they may need, in some ways. In spite of the insularity of the way their humor and their barbs operate, that very narrowness is a sign of how intimate their relationship is. “Ugh, I need a boyfriend,” Billy laments. Julie is quick to respond, “But you have me and meaningless sex.” What else could you want?

Difficult People is able to, at once, act as satire of conventional sitcom norms, mired in a kind of morality that requires a lesson be learned at the end of someone’s comeuppance bite them in the ass, as well as revel in an authentic experience of a series of emotions: envy, wrath, heartbreak, and self-loathing. But the intimacy is there and it matters that Billy and Julie continue to reach for it. They may not find it in others all the time, but at least the find it in each other.

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