It’s a weird one this week, guys. Not bad-weird, just unusual. There’s a small but perceptible reduction in joke density, and, as if rushing in to fill that vacuum, an increased quantity of sincere emotion. Dare I say … heart?
Again, it’s not a bad thing. In one sense, it’s necessary. Sitcoms are open-ended narratives that demand their characters revert to starting position at the end of each episode. They can’t grow or wholly change, as characters in fiction are required to do, because sitcom characters are denied the one thing that gives any story its shape: an ending. So instead, we get episodes like “36 Candles,” which vary the tone in small ways that, ideally, expose new facets. That’s why, episode to episode, the characters can seem pretty static, but over successive seasons, they can gradually grow rounder, deeper, more real.
But forget that for now, as we’ve got a bushel of low-hanging gags at the expense of public broadcasting to pick. Julie and Billy have agreed to cheer Arthur on as he plays in an NPR vs. PBS basketball game. There are several wildly improbable things about that sentence.
What’s far more believable is that Julie and Billy ignore the game as they decide which execrable one-person show they will attend the night before her upcoming birthday. (The best joke of the episode comes out of the gate early, and has to do with a show they saw last year involving a ventriloquist who sang in Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style about the times she’d exercised her right to choose: “Those,” says Julie, “were wordy abortions.”)
Meanwhile on the court, the jokes you expect come to pass: the players are athletically inept, dancing their mess around in an egregiously awkward manner. Their trash-talk is more wicker-powder-room-wastebasket talk. (Best exchange: “Bring it on!” “I will!” [Beat] “I shall!”) Again, obvious jokes, but well-executed physically. These dudes be powerfully ungainly.
Billy learns that Deniel, a dude he met on Tinder, and with whom he’s been texting often, is coming to New York. Billy’s tendency to compartmentalize his sex life is discussed: On his phone, there is openness and intimacy. IRL, anonymous hookups only.
Arthur makes the game’s only basket at the buzzer. There is nerd-celebration, and we get a shot of Urbaniak raising the roof that earns this episode a five-star rating even before the …
Walking home, Arthur lugs an enormous trophy while Julie convinces Billy to take a chance and meet Deniel in real life. As they walk, the sight of the trophy inspires random strangers to congratulate Arthur; this delights him. When he attempts to relate this fact to Julie, she snaps at him in a particularly cutting way (“Arthur, please! The soulmates are talking!”), and for a second, Difficult People risks becoming exactly the gratuitously cruel show many people mistakenly believe it to be, because JUST BACK THE HELL OFF ARTHUR, LADY. But watch Urbaniak here — how careful he is to show us that Arthur is too lost in the moment to register Julie’s rebuke, and the cruelty passes.
But seriously, show: Watch how you go, Arthur-wise.
Marilyn takes Julie out to her country club for lunch, which triggers a mother-daughter argument. Julie’s not about to let Marilyn forget that she briefly abandoned her at a Benihana on her 11th birthday. (Klausner and Martin are particularly good in this scene, digging beneath the surface to expose something a bit more raw and open than we’re used to. There’s real hurt here, not jokes about hurt.) Nevertheless, Marilyn and Julie soon get liquored up on complimentary Champagne at the spa, and enjoy one another’s company for perhaps the very first time.
At the café, it is established that Billy always makes the deliveries, and resents that Matthew never does. This will become important later. Lola the Trans Truther gets to do something that doesn’t involve a reference to the melting point of steel beams, so errybody’s getting facets up in here.
Turns out Deniel from Tinder is staying in his sister’s apartment. Billy meets him there, and finds that, as they’ve been so open via text, they can skip the small talk and get straight to the boning.
… Gay to the boning. You get the idea.
They get to it, but we don’t — instead we skip to them getting dressed afterward, in strict keeping with the Hays Code. We no sooner learn that Deniel is the brother of Billy’s hated boss, Denise (Deniel, Denise! THE CLUES WERE RIGHT BEFORE OUR VERY EYES), when Denise and Nate walk in on them, to everyone’s horror.
On their way to the putatively terrible one-woman show, Billy fills Julie in: Denise was surprisingly nice about the whole thing, and invited Billy and Deniel to meet their aunts. He’s nervous, because Deniel knows him too well for any of his usual avoidance maneuvers. Julie suggests just being himself, which is of course soundly rejected, because this show knows what its theme is. She then suggests Sharon-Stone-ing it — making the facial expression of the emotion he wants to project, and letting the emotion come after. (There’s some distracting coverage/ADR here. It will recur the next time Billy’s feelings for Deniel come up — guess the producers felt they needed to underline Billy’s emotional state.)
Julie comes home to find her love shack has become a deadbeat club: Arthur’s brief dalliance with bro-dom is curdling his essential Arthur-ness. He’s on the couch, watching sports, drinking a brew, and just generally being a choad (“Quit ridin’ me, woman!”). He’s still concerned about coasters, of course, because sports may be bitchin’ and all, but that doesn’t mean that condensation rings aren’t the enemy of a nice finish.
At the café, we learn Denise’s sinister plan: Her aunts hate everybody, and she’s certain they’ll castigate Billy so badly Deniel will dump him. This appeases Matthew, who is now stuck with deliveries, leading to a nice visual gag wherein a bunch of street urchins go full Suddenly, Last Summer on him.
No montage this week, but we get a nice bit of cross-cutting between Marilyn and Julie’s drunken karaoke bacchanal (they sing “Love Shack” because foreshadowing) and Billy’s dinner with the aunts. Though it starts out awkward, they quickly warm to him, to Denise’s anguished dismay. In the kitchen with Deniel, Billy references When Harry Met Sally, which is about as close as this show lets itself roam towards shmoopiness.
Marilyn and Julie go to the house of an old rival of Marilyn’s, where they light a bag of dog shit on fire at her front door. Her rival has moved away, however, so it’s a different elderly lady who’s forced to stamp out flaming poo in her slippers and cloth robe. As she does this, the episode briefly becomes a suspense thriller — that poor woman might as well be wearing dried leaves.
At the café, Billy gives Julie a Kate Pierson–adjacent gift. (That makes three separate references to Pierson in this episode so far — between them, and the B-52s posters in Julie’s childhood bedroom, the foreshadowing is officially fiveshadowing.) In another weird ADR moment, Billy explains that Sharon-Stone-ing seems to work; Matthew, outraged at his status as delivery boy, overhears this. Julie is delighted to hear that Billy got along with Deniel’s aunts, as “family can be a real clit-flattener.” (No yeah, sorry, wordy abortions, I take it back. This is the best joke of the episode.)
Benihana. Bro Arthur has assumed his terrifying final form: backwards ball cap, flannel shirt, general dickishness (“Birds be cluckin’, amirite?”). Marilyn and Julie are drunk, Marilyn entertainingly so (“who looks good with a center part — NOBODY!”). Drunk Marilyn has got a bit of Edith Prickley in her; this is not a complaint.
As the end of the episode nears, the subplots speed headlong to their conclusions. Matthew storms in and tells Deniel that Billy is merely Sharon-Stone-ing him. Billy denies it vehemently — and emotionally — which causes Deniel to cut and run. Flaming Bag of Poo Lady appears to call out Marilyn, causing her to flee as well. And Arthur, poor Arthur, drunk on testosterone, falls into the Benihana grill (“I grilled my arms!” he cries. “And without a marinade!”)
Julie’s in the bathroom while all that goes down, when who should walk in but Kate Goddamn Pierson. I really like how Kate Goddamn Pierson is written and performed here: As Julie gushes about how much Kate Goddamn Pierson has meant to her, she’s merely — even barely — polite. She acknowledges a fan, but she makes sure that fan understands that she’s wasting Kate Goddamn Pierson’s time.
It serves to flip the show’s go-to dynamic: Suddenly it’s Julie who is abjectly (even movingly) sincere — you can tell there’s a lot of Klausner in this monologue — while Kate Goddamn Pierson inhabits the role of someone who finds such emotion ridiculous.
Julie steps out of her own private Idaho to find everyone gone, and we get a Sixteen Candles music cue, cross-cut with 11-year-old Flashback Julie as she, too, finds herself abandoned in this same establishment where performative stir-frying counts as dinner theater.
Back at the basketball court of Arthur’s victory, Julie and Billy are sitting around a birthday cake in a tableaux meant to, yet again, evoke that ginger girl/tall dark guy pairing. They remind each other to keep their expectations so low that “a birthday is just another shitty day with cake that you have to share.”
They’re back to starting position: two bitter, desperately unhappy people resolving not to let their guard down. But they’ve both managed to take a tiny step outside who they were in the pilot. Not far outside, but enough to give them, and the show, a bit more to work with.
As it does so, Difficult People once again leaves us with a question it seems eager to pose but reluctant to answer: Is Julie and Billy’s friendship bad for them?