Since television thrives on ensemble casts and long-term storytelling, it’s an ideal medium for stories about the families that people are born into and the families they create for themselves. “The Courage Of A Soldier” sheds more light on the slightly dysfunctional relationships that Billy and Julie have with their nuclear families, information that also helps explain the reasoning behind their mutual codependence. Since Billy and Julie don’t feel entirely at home with their own families, they embraced the family they found in one another.
Billy’s visit to his brother’s home for Yom Kippur might be the show’s richest subplot yet. While there is no shortage of television out there examining the human comedy and drama inherent in famial relationships, this episode does an especially good job of weaving insights both funny and thoughtful together seamlessly. Witnessing this dinner, it’s clear that the actual death of Billy’s father wasn’t the only loss that the family suffered due to this tragedy. Billy has been avoiding his brother, Gary, because the presence of family is a painful reminder of the family that he can no longer visit. But Billy and Gary were already growing distant anyways due to the typical growing pains that most life-long relationships have to endure.
Difficult People is no Game Of Thrones, but it’s doing a great job of beginning to engage in its own version of world-building. Identity-based stories and jokes portray different, specific perspectives unapologetically, and the ways in which they interact. The show is particularly interested in the ways that subcultures unite and divide people; here, Billy and Gary have been struggling to find common ground since the Venn diagrams of their adult identities don’t perfectly overlap. Both boys grew up Jewish but Gary has embraced the traditional aspects of that culture while Billy keeps his heritage at arms length. Speaking of traditional culture, Gary has also married a woman and had children, while Billy is living his life as a single gay man. Gary tries to bridge these gaps, but Billy has a tendency of pushing people away, especially if they are different or guilty of a cardinal sin—giving away the fact that they are actually trying. After Billy goes on a rant about the differences between he and his brother, explaining that he worships showbusiness instead of Judaism, his niece responds by joking that this is the most Jewish thing she’s ever heard.
The line is hilarious; this show is hilarious. Difficult People will invariably be labeled “that Hulu show with all of the pop culture references” by the few familiar with Hulu’s original programming in the first place, but it’s so much more than that. The comedy is smart enough to take advantage of everything that its principle tool has to offer. The jokes are funny in and of themselves, but they often serve secondary purposes related to plot development, thematic development, or character development. Impressively, Billy and Julie have already been established well enough that the character-based jokes hit hard. Often, a character’s joke actually reveals an insecurity when a reliable defense mechanism rears its ugly head. Billy and Julie protect themselves from challenging family members and dark thoughts—like the idea of never being handed an HBO show on a silver platter—by laughing at others before others have the chance to laugh at them. Meanwhile, the aforementioned line about Judaism is one of many on the show that simultaneously earns a laugh and reveals an important truth: Billy’s niece is pointing out that her father and uncle may be fighting, but their similarities outnumber their differences. There’s a weight to Difficult People that many comedies lack, but it’s too early to know for sure whether it will ultimately be considered a dramedy or not. Labels are limiting, anyways; all I know is that I’m comfortable calling the show rich.
Part of the credit here goes to the executives at Hulu, who have reportedly given Klausner the freedom to make her dream series. She isn’t trapped by traditional requirements like including the supporting cast in every episode, for instance. Accordingly, she can write an episode packed with ideas that doesn’t feel overstuffed. The lines serve multiple purposes because the writing is efficient and intentional, probably due to Klausner’s singular vision. Seemingly innocuous references to HBO and On The Town early in the episode turn out to foreshadow later story developments while the concluding scene featuring a newscast is replete with callbacks to the episode’s subplots. Loose, improvised comedy has its place, but meticulous planning can result in especially satisfying material as long as it doesn’t stifle the writers’ imaginations.
Creatively, the episode’s plots aren’t especially unique, though it’s nice to see Gary unexpectedly save the day by helping Julie in the end in order to improve his relationship with Billy. Julie also has family problems, and they’re exacerbated by Nicole, a friend of Marilyn’s who also happens to resemble a more socially acceptable version of her daughter. “Outrage culture” is an overly simplistic term for a real facet of contemporary political debate, but it’s a subject ripe for critique in the right hands. Julie attempts to besmirch Nicole’s reputation by questioning her patriotism, then finds herself forced to prove her own when Nicole calls her bluff. The plot satirizes armchair activism, while addressing Julie’s complicated relationship with her mother as well as reality itself in one fell swoop. Julie’s transparent attempts at voluntarism for self-serving reasons are fun to watch, if a touch familiar and straightforward when compared to Billy’s plot. Difficult People doesn’t need to adopt Enlightened’s premise per se, but the show is capable of delving deeper into the subject of altruism; the reveal that the veteran was horny all along isn’t the most rewarding takeaway.
Arthur’s involvement in this plot and the reasoning behind Julie giving a speech in honor of Marilyn at the graduation party feel forced, but the story is worthwhile for one reason at the very least. Julie’s rivalry with Nicole may have seemed a little unnecessary since the relationship between this mother and daughter has already been conveyed as being strained, but the plot also mocked over-investment in political correctness at a time when Difficult People has actually inspired some outrage of its own. A show about comedians prone to crossing “the line”—wherever that is—has apparently overstepped it according to some, as a joke in the pilot involving Blue Ivy and R. Kelly has attracted controversy. If this doesn’t already bring back enough memories about The Onion’s infamous headline about a certain young actress, the scene where Billy’s sister-in-law calls her daughter a cunt certainly should. Choose a side or don’t; the topic is complicated enough that Julie Klausner has apparently devoted a great amount of time exploring the subject on her new show.
- “Renee is going through her cunt phase.” “That’s okay, me too.” Since the man in the scene admits to being a cunt himself, does that render the joke acceptable? Where’s that pesky rulebook?
- Julie’s a pro at reaction shots, especially when faith is involved. Billy’s agent isn’t Jewish and Nicole’s mom is a Scientologist. Julie could not be more delighted by these facts.
- “I’ll have to pitch a series to HBO about a network that passed on all the good shows and all that was left was The Leftovers.” “Or what about a Fraggle Rock reboot except all the Fraggles are trans.” “Do you think that’s too close to Looking?” Someone mentioned Looking!
- “Pledge Drive” mocks PBS and this episode mocks HBO. I can’t wait for the takedown of Pivot.
- “I’m so glad we survived that party. You know, in a way, we’re veterans.”
- “Family is like religion. It’s just for when you’re dying or getting married; any other time, it’s just superfluous.”