Difficult People isn’t for everyone. In a wildly unscientific poll of friends who’ve tried the show’s first season, the results split just about even: 40 percent for, 50 percent against, 10 percent “STOP TEXTING ME.”
When asked why it wasn’t their thing, the Against camp gave responses like, “I’m over shows about entitled, self-involved New Yorkers,” and “I just don’t want to spend any time with these terrible people,” and, “Awful people being awful. Why is that funny?”
Perhaps you know someone who feels similarly. Someone who, like the guy who gave that last answer, still laces his conversation with Seinfeld bits and is “stoked” for Curb Your Enthusiasm’s return. But respectfully, come on. Both shows share Difficult People’s putative subject of awful people being awful, though they differ in two important respects: sensibility (unlike Seinfeld, Difficult People posits a New York City in which gay people exist) and joke density (Seinfeld relished bit repetition, while Difficult People stuffs every line of dialogue with jokes).
On the other hand, here is what the folks in the For camp said, when asked why they liked the show: “It’s funny.”
So, yes: Difficult People isn’t for everyone. But then, nothing good is.
The second-season premiere opens with Billy and Julie walking into a trendy health club, complete with climbing wall, aerobics class, and bouncy blonde ponytails. Billy is (morosely) excited about the place: “Honestly, if instead of showers they just had the Hemsworth brothers spitting at you and calling you a dirty whore, it’d be too good to be true.”
It’s only the latest in a series of gyms he’s burned through. His pattern: Hook up with a guy in the steam room, date briefly, find said guy wanting, go silent, and then never return to that gym ever again. Billy idly wonders how long this slutty phase will last, which occasions a particularly random, particularly mean, and particularly funny joke about Anne Hathaway’s clitoris.
(Okay, let’s stop right there. If this were Seinfeld, “Anne Hathaway’s clitoris” would be a WHOLE THING. We’d hear variations of “Anne Hathaway’s clitoris” eight-to-ten more times. The next day at your work, that jerk Dennis from Accounts Receivable would piss his khakis talking about Anne-Hathaway’s-clitoris-this and Anne-Hathaway’s-clitoris-that. But, no, that’s not how Difficult People rolls. Anne Hathaway’s clitoris is a throwaway joke; it vanishes in the wind.)
They run into Heather, who was formerly a recapper like Julie until she secured a writing gig on Horse, a Netflix series about a “single mom who sells heroin to support her trans child’s horseback-riding hobby.” “It’s such important work,” Heather says. (Somewhere in Hollywood, Jeffrey Tambor shakes off a sudden chill.)
We learn she got the gig by joining “Refutz,” a secret group she met at synagogue, who host “schmoozy Shabbat dinners and get each other entertainment jobs.” Billy suggests Julie join the group by going to their synagogue to “pray, or whatever.”
The two part ways by encouraging each other to stay strong: Billy not to hook up in the steam room, Julie not to “eat [her] weight in Charleston Chews.” We then get a split-screen of both moaning with pleasure as they do the opposite of what they intended (because that is how comedy works) accompanied by a soaring pan-flute (because Yanni?).
Fittingly, Billy’s steam-room trick is steampunk. Or steam-era, at least: He’s an “Old-Timey,” fond of dressing in Victorian clothes, riding a penny farthing, and calling people “chum.” His name is Cecil, and he’s played by a perfectly cast John Mulaney, whom we first see wearing only a towel wrapped notably high around the waist. (This was either a character choice or a reflection of Mulaney’s hilariously on-the-record hangup.) Against his better judgment, Billy resolves to pitch woo with this bowler-hatted popinjay.
Meanwhile, Julie complains to Arthur, her big beige cardigan of a boyfriend played by James Urbaniak. Arthur’s having some stress of his own at PBS, involving Antiques Roadshow. This sets Julie off on a rant about the shadiness of antiques dealers, whom she believes all have secret backrooms full of Nazi propaganda. Why yes, this detail will be important later.
Julie says she has to join her mother, Marilyn, on a shiva call to the family of Marilyn’s late tennis partner, which leads to this:
Julie: She dropped dead on the court.
Arthur: Were they close?
Julie: They were like 4–4.
Jokes, people! Remember jokes? Remember when comedies had jokes in them?
Anyway, Marilyn is worried. Her friend didn’t leave a will, so her belongings are being given to a [stage whisper] Palestinian charity. To keep that from happening when she dies, she resolves to get a video camera and tape her will. Naturally, this triggers a Brewster’s Millions joke, because this show is made for like six people. Of which I am happily one.
When Julie and Billy show up to the synagogue on Friday night, they see Heather and her Refutz gang, including showrunner Lily, played by Sandra Bernhard. She’s not given much to do, frankly, but this show didn’t hire Sandra Bernhard to do much besides be Sandra Bernhard, so gay dudes and women across America would be like, “Hey, Sandra Bernhard!” It’s enough, you know? Dayenu.
Julie invites herself to their schmoozy Shabbat dinner after shul, and we cut to Billy entering Cecil’s well-appointed home at the end of their date, attempting to let the dapper dandy down easy. Turns out Cecil’s well-appointed home is more a well-appointed mansion; though he does some antiques dealing on the side, Cecil’s the heir to a jelly-bean fortune. “A billion-dollar industry,” he says, and Billy changes his plans. “I think it’s sexy that you dress like someone who could still get the measles,” he lies, “way before Jenny McCarthy was even born.”
At Shabbat dinner, the Refutzers give Julie the lowdown on their method: They unplug from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, use the time away from screens to think of ideas, and reconvene Saturday night to share them. Desperate to impress, Julie offers her home to host the next meal.
The next day, Julie explains to Billy the notion of a Shabbos goy: the non-Jew whom observant Jews use on the Sabbath to perform mechanical tasks like pushing elevator buttons and lighting the oven. This will be Arthur’s role. The Shabbos goy thing doesn’t really come back into play, since this scene is really about establishing that their neighbor is a neo-Nazi (his Wi-Fi router is “hitlerhadsomegoodideas.”)
Across town, Marilyn is setting up her new video camera, which she describes as “The Fonda 5000, the exclusive camera used by the Netflix series, Grace and Frankie.” (I like the shade this Hulu comedy keeps throwing at Netflix. What a nicely rarified, esoteric beef.) Just as she’s about to smear Vaseline on the camera lens, Tina Fey knocks on her door. She’s directing an episode of The Blacklist — “which has always been a dream [beat] of my agent’s” — and wants to film on Marilyn’s front steps.
Marilyn agrees, if Tina will direct her video will. Tina balks, which kicks Marilyn into Jewish Mother mode: “You want to use my steps, but you don’t want to help a woman who, as spry and self-lubricating as she is, needs to videotape her will so she can drop dead at any moment?” Uh, Marilyn? You might have sold the “self-lubricating” part better if you weren’t carrying a big ol’ tub of Vaseline.
Anyway, it works. Tina agrees to direct the video, mostly because she wants to get her hands on the Fonda 5000. And for the day wine.
Two details to file away for later: (1) As Julie and Arthur head out to the grocery store, they meet their neo-Nazi neighbor, who looks like the dude from Phantasm but with old-man trousers; (2) despite her allergies, Julie is wearing a woolen Eileen Fisher number to fit in with the Refutzers.
After a Billy-and-Cecil Pretty Woman montage (complete with the oh-how-hilarious-you-almost-snapped-the-gift-box-on-my-hand scene), the Refutzers gather at Julie’s place, and she shares some of the ideas she came up with while unplugged. It’s really just an excuse for a solid run of gags:
- Glee but with dogs
- A Botched spin-off where Dr. Terry Dubrow’s leather jacket becomes sentient and solves crimes
- American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought It Through This Time
- CSI: Provincetown (“And there’s, like, a ton of piss-play!”)
- A workplace comedy about lesbian bed death
- Something with Annette Bening
Julie mentions that her friend Billy is going to a party at his boyfriend Cecil’s house, and describes Cecil’s Old-Timey ways, but Lily thinks it’s another joke. So Julie offers to show them by taking the group over to Cecil’s place after dinner.
At Marilyn’s, the video shoot has hit a snag despite some excellent golden-hour lighting. Tina’s not feeling it; she doesn’t think Marilyn is being honest about her last wishes. Marilyn admits she’s leaving Julie her wedding dress out of spite, since she knows she’ll never marry “that alcoholic” and it’ll never actually fit.
“Don’t think of them as items,” Tina advises. “Think of them as spitems.” (you can feel this joke reaching for Seinfeldian Catchphrase Status.) Tina convinces Marilyn to give away her spitems now, when she can still see how much they hurt people’s feelings.
And that’s the last we get of Marilyn’s B-plot. Feels like we’re missing a payoff, no? Might we be looking at Marilyn’s season-long arc? If it means more Tina Fey and more weirdly specific jokes about James Spader’s sartorial choices, I’m in.
At the party of Old-Timeys, one of Cecil’s chums (Orville, not Jeffy, the one who always wears two hats at once) busts out a jaunty ditty on ukulele and kazoo. Billy, ever the audience surrogate, has had enough. He breaks up with Cecil gently, ensuring that he can enjoy their gym and its three types of water: “plain, lemon, and [sob] cucumber.”
When the Refutzers arrive, Lily is duly impressed by the arrant weirdness around her, and promises Julie that they’ll pitch a show about the Old-Timeys to Netflix on Monday. Her eyes watering from allergies, Julie asks Cecil for a tour of his manse. However, Cecil mistakes Julie’s eye-blink for a coded wink, and slyly shows her, Arthur, and Billy to a secret room filled with Nazi paraphernalia. Julie’s neo-Nazi neighbor is there, likely pricing Goebbel’s riding crop.
Billy breaks up with Cecil again, more forcefully this time: “Fuck you, you tincture-making, derby-hat-wearing, jelly-bean-inventing, penny-farthing-riding, steam-room-blowing, Nazi-stuff-selling, piece of shit!”
Feeling triumphant, Julie and Billy perform an unironic high-five … but only half of it is captured by Lily’s camera. In the impromptu shot, Julie stands before a Nazi flag, appearing to sieg her heil. “I’ll make sure you’ll never work in television,” Lily spits. “Recapper trash.” I’ve already made a GIF of that last bit, so I can send it to myself whenever I feel like having Sandra Bernhard hurl invectives at me.
The next day, Billy and Julie walk down the street, staring into their phones. They resolve to spend less time with people, and more time with screens.