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‘Difficult People’ Doesn’t Need (or Want) Your Applause

Weighing the pros and cons of niche TV

Hulu
Hulu

One of the neat side effects of [deep sigh, puffs inhaler] Peak TV is that even as the idea of “shows for everyone” increasingly looks like a fiction (unless your name is Shonda Rhimes), everyone — or at least everyone with the capital and connections to get something made — gets a show of their own. As á la carte streaming services make the way we watch TV more and more customized, TV itself is looking more and more bespoke. Which is why it’s only fitting that a service like Hulu airs two series particularly unconcerned with mass appeal, for better and for worse.

Comedian Julie Klausner’s Difficult People returns for its second season this Tuesday, and the premise is generic enough: two best friends, Julie (Klausner) and Billy (fearless street screamer Billy Eichner) attempt to kvetch their way out of dead-end jobs and into show business. But this is a show with a sensibility so specific its guest list functions as a litmus test. Does “Sandra Bernhard, Nathan Lane, and John Waters Dreamlander Mink Stole” sound like the cast of your dream dinner party? Welcome. Did you read the words “Mink Stole” and think of a fancy jacket? Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

Difficult People is a true New York show, in that it knows there are a thousand different New Yorks — and feels certain its own is the best. You’ll find no brightly lit L.A. backlots passing for Manhattan side streets here. Difficult People shoots in the dead of East Coast winter, in keeping with its belief that the true spirit of the city is crankiness, not cosmopolitanism. Also absent is any explanation of, or apology for, the pop culture references that drive the show. A subplot in the second season premiere blatantly riffs on Transparent creator Jill Soloway and the social group she cofounded at her local JCC — or at least, it does to those of us viewers who know enough about Judaism, television, and the center of their Venn diagram to care about these things. It’s a small group, but damned if there isn’t enough Manischewitz to go around.

Klausner created Difficult People, and writes or co-writes every episode, specifically for that “us.” It’s the same us that listens to her podcast, a collection of (mostly) solo monologues fueled by Klausner’s bottomless reserve of pop culture knowledge (and equally limitless ability to synthesize jokes from it). It’s the same us that thinks the weirdly prescient NBC humor was the best part of 30 Rock — and nods at Tina Fey’s cameo in the new season. And it’s the same us that loves Difficult People for what it is: a writer-driven comedy of misanthropy, one that exists in intentional stasis. Three episodes into the second season, the dynamic is still the same, with the addition of Shakina Nayfack as Billy’s “trans truther” coworker the only significant tweak to the status quo — and even then, the character fits in perfectly with Difficult People’s loving, absurdist take on what happens when narcissists discover identity politics. Billy and Julie won’t stop being difficult any more than their characters will actually make it in comedy. Their real-life counterparts already have the audience they want.

I like Difficult People. Whenever I watch it, though, I’m always acutely aware of why I like it: for the same reasons I’m so fond of Broad City, or Transparent, or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I’m Jewish; I’ve lived in New York and L.A.; I inhale pop culture for both business and pleasure. The less that description applies to you, the less likely you’ll be to make it past the pilot, let alone crack open Season 2. On the other hand, what’s wrong with narrowcasting as long as it’s done well? Difficult People is a show made possible by a brave new world of TV in which the quantity of viewers matters less than their passion. It might as well take advantage.

If Difficult People represents the upside of comedies secure in their niche, though, Hulu’s other sophomore comedy demonstrates its drawbacks. Casual has the disadvantage of being in a niche that’s newer and trendier than Difficult People’s. Cagey Manhattanites have been synonymous with the sitcom since time immemorial, or at least 1989. Disaffected Angelenos, however, have only taken over the small screen in earnest over the past couple of years, making the similarities between their series more obvious and their flaws harder to brush off. Larry David and David Duchovny have given way to a new wave of grumpy West Coasters: Transparent, Togetherness, You’re the Worst, Love, arguably BoJack Horseman, and now Casual — it’s an awful lot of messy people, making an awful lot of bad, sepia-lit decisions. All bubbles have to burst, even one as lovably shambolic as this.

The L.A. dramedy has a basic blueprint: something happens to an emotionally mature protagonist that’s momentous enough to kick off a series but not so momentous it disrupts their underemployed affluence. In Casual’s case, a therapist gets divorced and moves, along with her teenage daughter, into her brother’s tech-money manse. (He runs an online dating site; insert irony here.) What ensues is not so much hilarity as a look at the predictable effects of parental neglect and a familial lack of boundaries on people’s love lives.

Casual’s 10-episode first season got mixed reviews, generally highlighting Michaela Watkins’s sensitive, subtly neurotic performance and a final stretch starring Fred Melamed and Frances freakin’ Conroy as the leads’ monstrous parents, who excuse their own selfishness as attachment-free bohemianism. But the second season instead plays up what made Casual so offputting for those who never pushed through to those last few episodes: a manchild idealizes yet another woman, a teenager once again uses her sexuality to project an aura of jaded cool. It all feels as if Casual is declining to make the case for itself against its direct competition, let alone the rest of television. Selling audiences on a show about the vague romantic ennui of rich people is hard enough. Doing it when protagonists repeat their mistakes despite having all the time (and money) for self-reflection they could possibly need is harder. The extra three episodes’ worth of investment in Season 2, and the even looser plotting that comes with them, is just a bonus.

In its own way, Casual is just as uninterested in broadening its base as Difficult People. Where Difficult People feels almost defiant in its prickly enthusiasm, though, Casual is simply alienating. Playing to your core constituency is great, particularly when it’s more likely than ever you’ll have the opportunity to do so for multiple seasons and beyond. But you have to build one first.