Hulu’s Difficult People is the kind of cult-friendly comedy that doesn’t typically last long on a broadcast network, a hangout sitcom populated with characters many people wouldn’t care to hang out with. The issue is not that central besties Julie (creator Julie Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner) embody the show’s curmudgeonly title—though they certainly do—but that their inside jokes will sail over the heads of all but the most rabid pop-culture omnivores. Like Happy Endings and Community, People continues to lean heavily on minute referential humor. Those who would enjoy Julie and Billy’s companionship in real life will have just as much fun watching them on television, while those who wouldn’t are doomed to smile, nod, and pretend they get the joke.
In a bygone television world, People’s esoteric qualities would have its fans planning letter-writing campaigns to save it from cancellation before the pilot even finished. But with audiences fragmenting into smaller and smaller slices, a narrow-band sitcom like People can find the right-sized audience to revel in Julie and Billy’s cool-kid musings. In one new episode, Julie, an aspiring television writer, gets an opportunity to pitch to a group of influential industry decision-makers. Her most compelling idea is a season of FX’s tentpole franchise called American Horror Story: We Promise We Thought It Through This Time. In another scene, Julie and Billy lament the cancellation of American Comedy Story, which starred Keegan-Michael Key as Sinbad. For those tickled by that kind of pop-culture sideswipe, Difficult People is a godsend.
For others, the show is bound to be elusive because so much of its humor requires the audience to have absorbed a ton of other media or at least routinely glanced-at tabloid covers in the grocery store. People isn’t really a show about people, and the episodes stand alone to the extent that any of the season two installments screened for critics could have easily been tacked onto season one. Julie and Billy are exactly the same people they were last season, a self-absorbed “guys who love guys and the girls who love them” pair obsessed with breaking into show business by any means necessary. Until that happens, they’re happy to settle for leveling sick burns at the people in the best position to hire them.
Character development doesn’t mean a whole lot in the world of Difficult People, so there isn’t much of it aside from Billy’s futile attempts to become less promiscuous and Julie’s efforts to step away from writing snarky television recaps, even though it’s the job to which she’s most well-suited. But nearly all of the attention lands on the gruesome twosome, since the only other characters are Julie’s live-in boyfriend, Arthur (James Urbaniak at his menschiest), and neurotic mother, Marilyn (Andrea Martin).
The rest of their universe is full of irritating others played by the likes of Tina Fey (as herself), Nathan Lane (as himself), Sandra Bernhard, and John Mulaney. Part of the fun of People is spotting all the familiar faces, a quality it shares with Broad City as a show produced under Amy Poehler’s Paper Kite production shingle, with the same access to Poehler’s extensive Rolodex. The important new face this season belongs to transgender actress Shakina Nayfack, the latest addition to what is already one of the most unapologetically queer comedies out there. Better still, Nayfack’s gender transition isn’t the most noteworthy thing about her character, Lola. Lola gets hired to tend bar at the restaurant that Billy half-heartedly works at, and she describes herself as a 9/11 “trans truther.” She doesn’t say much about her life as a man, but she’ll find any excuse to mention that burning jet fuel can’t melt steel.
Larry David remains the biggest influence on People, with chief scriptwriter Klausner mimicking the Curb Your Enthusiasm structure. (A season-one episode ended with Julie and Billy humming the Curb theme song after an ironic twist ending.) As a result, People follows the same rhythms. If Julie and Billy manage to piss off a seemingly nonessential character in act one, you’re guaranteed to see them again in act three. It also creates the same relationship with its audience as did Curb. Julie and Billy are total assholes, and if they’re the subspecies of asshole you find delightful—imagine Joel McHale’s The Soup in people form—you’ll enjoy their company. If not, they’ll never be your Friends.