We begin inside the offices of Buzzlist, a media entity that “loves lists,” where Julie and Billy landed a two-week trial as guest bloggers. Strap in, people: We’re gonna see some content creation.
The Buzzlist set design is what I’d describe as “TV’s idea of internet company.” Remember the Slugline office in House of Cards? (They really called it that, by the way, and we all let them get away with it.) This is pretty much that: primary colors, a variety of balls (exercise, Koosh, Foos-), basically a daycare center for adults who need to be reminded that they’re creative and idiosyncratic. The person showing them around is played by Abby Elliott, and she gives her character a vocal inflection that would cause any male, middle-aged, public-radio listeners in earshot to run to the nearest comments section and be condescending.
As one would expect, jokes are made at the expense of fatuous internet lists, the sharpest of which is “21 Ways to Tell That You’re an Introvert Who Won’t Shut Up About Being an Introvert on Social Media.”
This show’s propensity to pick a random cable channel and dog it is one of its most endearing qualities, and the target of this week’s Rival Cable Network Beef is Showtime. Julie offers a pithy recap of The Affair (“I love how that show is so well-written, and yet it manages to be so boring”), and she’s informed that they’re casting for a spin-off. They’re shown their work space — a seesaw — and just before we get the title freeze-frame, a service bunny rolls by on a skateboard.
At home, Julie slaps down Arthur’s notion of registering as domestic partners to save on taxes. (“You’re trying to tame a wild horse!”) She calls him “cranky, like Martin Sheen being forced to play a gay guy on that show.” Which is a surprising line, as Difficult People is all about the specificity of its references, but it’s a setup: Julie doesn’t watch Grace and Frankie, but of course Arthur does. (“It’s got a lot of heart!”)
Every new detail we learn about Arthur is a perfect Arthur detail. I love Arthur. I’m Every Arthur.
Billy is blocked from entering a gay nightclub because he’s not a bear, a cub, a wolf, an otter, or a jackal. That last one is defined as “blond wolves with a tan and a good laugh.” (For the record, “and a good laugh” is my favorite joke of this episode.) A bouncer suggests he hit a nearby piano bar and Billy, rightly, recoils in horror. Instead, he heads home, where still another velvet rope — or at least a POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape — bars his entry. His building is under quarantine for Ebola, which prompts four different line readings from Eichner: “(Alarmed): Ebola? (Confused): Ebola? (Skeptical): Ebola? (Just Had Some Bad Shrimp): Ebola?”
The next day at Buzzlist, Billy informs Julie that he spent the night at his brother’s place. (Feels like a joke was cut here.) We learn that hot-dog water is one of the most disgusting things in New York City, because Millennials and journalism. (As a boy, I’d get my mom to take the water she boiled hot dogs in and pour it into a coffee mug for me. I’d then repair with it to the den, wearing a bathrobe I pretended was a smoking jacket and a hand towel I wrapped around my neck like a cravat to watch The Mighty Heroes. There I would sip the hot-dog water, slowly, decorously, thoughtfully: a sort of meat tea. It was a ghastly ritual of my early youth, and though I did it often, I have somehow managed to make it to my forties without even once mutating into a monster whose mere existence denies all laws of God and man, or getting cancer of the everything.)
Another solid and gleefully gratuitous joke about the boring nature of Showtime fare is made: Julie decides she will audition for a Showtime show by trying to sound like an Australian who’s trying to sound American. Enter the ludicrously over-articulated terminal “r”, favored by Dominic West, Liam Neeson, and nerds like me.
At the casting session, Julie brings her “service dogs” (read: her bassets she’s slapped fake SERVICE DOG jackets on). Between her hard-r line readings and the dogs, the casting directors conclude Julie is mentally disabled. (Rachel Dratch isn’t given enough to do as one of the casting directors, but she does put some nice English on “God’s simple angel,” so.)
Billy attempts to crash on Julie’s couch, but he doesn’t anticipate obstacles: The dogs are too attentive, Arthur’s sleep-cooking too noisy, and Julie’s sleep-apnea mask too elephantine. I will not recount the Preston Sturges/Barbara Stanwyck references that ensue, save to point out that they are on-brand Arthur.
At the café, Marilyn offers to let Billy crash at her place. Julie warns him not to, but she’s got bigger concerns: The Showtime folks wrote a small role especially for her. She resolves to stay in character throughout shooting, so as not to risk losing her fake accent. You perhaps see where this is going.
Given that “Billy moves in with Marilyn” is one of the most sitcom-y setups Difficult People has yet attempted, we return from the commercial break in classic sitcom fashion: an exterior shot of Marilyn’s apartment, and a Too Close for Comfort–esque music cue. Billy and Marilyn bond over their shared selfish disregard for nature and celebrities and the world at large, really.
When Julie shows up to the shoot, she’s greeted with exaggerated warmth. Her role as Patches the Balloon Seller (“BAHL-LOOOONS! PRITTY BAHL-LOONS FIR SAYLE!”) goes off without a hitch. Afterwards, in her trailer, Abby from Showtime says they want to take her out for a celebratory meal — and introduce her to some reporters. (Abby’s played by Ilfenesh Hadera with a bracing naturalism. On a show this joke-dense, even veteran comedy actors have a tendency to lean on the punchlines to make sure they land; Hadera’s tossed-off delivery lets us find the jokes.)
And once again, the show’s central theme plays out: Things go well for Julie and Billy only when they deny their true, bitter, hateful selves. It’s not just the accent and the dogs that make people think Julie is disabled. It’s her put-on, deeply un-Julie-like cheerfulness. Likewise, Billy’s time with Marilyn isn’t simply causing him to revert to childhood. It’s specifically neutering his sexuality, as when she distracts him from Tinder by treating him like a rom-com gay BFF — or, as he says, like a Gilmore Girl. It all serves to remind us of something I don’t think the Difficult People haters understand: This show takes place within a strict moral universe. True, the two leads are blithely awful, but they never truly get away with it.
Julie and Billy are hired full-time, and come to co-equal realizations: Billy has to get out of Marilyn’s house because the power of her withering disappointment is curdling his soul, and Julie has to hang onto Arthur because he’s Arthur.
On their way to the restaurant with the Showtime people, Julie agrees to domestic partnership, and promptly gets doused with hot-dog water, “the second most disgusting thing about New York City.” This means she’ll have to wear her old kitty sweatshirt, which Arthur just so happens to be carrying because EVEN COMEDY HAS LOGISTICS, PEOPLE. JOKES DON’T JUST HAPPEN. YOU GOTTA GET FROM POINT A TO POINT B.
At the restaurant, the payoff hits: The casting directors are aghast to meet Arthur and learn that he and Julie schtupp on the reg. (I feel it important to note here that Arthur is drinking what appears to be a snifter of brandy. At an Outback.) Abby and the reporters show up, one of whom is Abby Elliot’s Buzzlist reporter. (Maybe it’s a port? Like a 12-year-old Tawny? Whichever, the point is: Of course he is.)
The jig, as they say, is up. Very up. So up, that both Julie AND Billy are fired. (How does THAT work, exactly? Never mind. Needs to happen for there to be a show next week. MOVIN’ ON.)
Billy packs up his things, and Marilyn, true to type, plays wounded. We get a line that reveals Marilyn’s deeply maternal feelings toward Billy. We do not, however, get the Other Sister joke that seemed inevitable. But it’ll be okay, because Julie and Billy have each other’s backs. And if that’s somehow not comfort enough, the candy that Julie stashed in her childhood headboard is still there.