Start from Hello, Old Friend: In Loving Memory of Julie Klausner’s “Difficult People”
Being one of the two shows I actively make an effort to watch, the cancellation of the brilliant Difficult People is devastating for me.Biting gay men and their equally witty female counterparts, or arguably vice versa, are a shopworn cliche in comedies. But the significance of Difficult People, the Hulu Original created, written, and starring Julie Klausner and starring Billy Eichner, is the show’s ability to flesh out the world to be hyperspecific beyond bon mots. Playing a struggling writer and a struggling actor, the finely observed details of their relationship, in both cruelty and joy, are hard to find in most media. To use “Old Friends” from Stephen Sondheim’s cult flop musical in the season three finale, and the unexpected series’ end, is another example of the deft way in which Klausner could paint mean people as being capable of deep intimacy and love.
Difficult People is best known for its showbusiness barbs at Kevin Spacey and Ryan Murphy, and rather than undermine that as a quality of the show, embedded into its DNA, the reason Difficult People is beautiful to me is that it can be about horribly mean, judgmental who are still human, still flawed, and whose likability does not matter. Unlike Girls or Looking, Julie and Billy don’t need to be redeemed in a quasi-moralistic vein. They can come as they are, and they don’t give a shit if we like them — even though they secretly do, which is the most human thing about Klausner’s writing.
Klausner allows her leads to have a duality: they don’t have to apologize for themselves, and they sure as shit do not want you to apologize for them; to do so would be pandering, condescending, witless. But they are allowed moments of vulnerability, as in “Italian Pinata” from Season 2, where Julie tests out what it feels like to belong to a group of women; or in “High Alert”, in which Matthew’s (Cole Escola) octogenarian groom to be tells Billy to stop being such a judgmental jackass and let himself be raw, unarmored.
Julie and Billy are best when they’re situating themselves in being on the offensive, defensive, or truly vulnerable. That state of flux is what makes their verbal jabs sting, but also what makes them compulsively interesting people. That they are more often than not in this process together is what makes the show such an achievement; they know each other with enviable intimacy.
I remember I watched this show on a whim, or by force, rather. A friend in Provincetown showed me the pilot when I thought we were going to make out. But watching Julie and Billy roam the streets, constantly dissatisfied, maybe dealing with mood swings, and at once being able to articulate their fury but not exactly their emotions — that spoke to me. It was like my id as a sitcom, the purest distillation of everything I’d like to say, but wouldn’t dare. It’s nice to find people who can speak for you, spewing spittle all the while. Its gay specificity, critique and exaltation of coastal elite culture, uncompromising pettiness, its beautiful and talented cast, including Andrea Martin, Cole Escola, Shakina Nayfak, and James Urbaniak. It’s all beautiful and I’ll miss it so.
While time goes by and everything else keeps changing, Julie and Billy’s reliability is in their consistent stagnancy and ambivalence about where to go from here, from a failed transplant in LA to an honest job in television writing. The same kind of anxiety about the future that permeates Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha and Mistress America fits comfortably in the acidic language and small world of Julie and Billy’s, but it’s even on occasion more daring and more anxious. But Difficult People I hope will leave a legacy of lacerating, even truth telling comedy, one of the few sitcoms that could be poignant without the bad prestigey aftertaste. To take a few words from Sondheim, most shows fade, or they don’t make the grade, and new ones are quickly made, and in a pinch, sure, Bojack will do.
But, Julie and Billy as old friends, as our old friends, what’s to discuss, old friends?
Here’s to them, who’s like them? Damn few.