As delightful as Julie Klausner’s anarchic sensibilities have always been, and given the magnetism and charm always lurking beneath Billy Eichner’s performative hysterics, their first announcement of “Difficult People” (which this week finished its sophomore season on Hulu) was a little dismaying: The Daria Morgendorffer, sour-grapes, Generation X, boy-and-his-hag part of their act(s) has always been the least interesting or subversive, and the most mired in tropes that both talents otherwise seem to consciously rise above.
Two obnoxious people, talking endlessly about how obnoxious they are — and how anyone who notices how obnoxious they are can shove it, because everyone can shove it, because everyone is obnoxious — is the Miley Cyrus of comedy, self-loathing and acting-out in turns, and as that flavor of snark fades from the Internet and popular culture, the best hope for Klausner and Eichner was that the show would eventually find its footing, and transcend that central logline.
The Larry David sensibility of aggressive, abrasive misanthropy has so thoroughly dispersed itself into our shared cultural language that a new generation of comedy — thinking principally of “You’re The Worst” here, or “Bojack Horseman”; even the first season or so of “Community” had a sweetness to offset the acidity — was almost obliged to lay claim on its subversion.
The only way to dig out from under snark is to tell the absolute truth, because doubling down on sincerity only makes you the butt of the joke. In fact, you could argue the melancholy in the last generation of buzzy streaming and cable comedies, from “Casual” and “Transparent” to “Togetherness” and “Girls,” even “Baskets” — the disparagement of which has recently come into vogue — is another response to the same stimuli: Comedy is the art of shared humiliation, and digging down to truth means digging down to ugliness.
The nastiness of ’90s sitcoms was a celebration of ’90s irony, and it’s the resurgence of that viewpoint that contains the backlash: The weepiness of Aughts comedies, if nasty is your home, comes from hipster performances of depth from white people, etc. Not really an interesting point of view to me normally, but swings into play immediately when we’re talking about “Difficult People,” which was never as nasty as it wanted to be, but in the second season has surpassed even its rather modest remit.
Formally, this second season has seen some winking critiques or satirizing sitcom tropes: In the finale, Billy’s advice to Julie’s boyfriend Arthur (James Urbaniak) about his romantic jealousy could easily have been a “Happy Days” wrap-up, with a few of the graphically sexual details obscured. But that’s the kind of developing complexity you’d expect from any half-decent show with smart people at the helm, and often a harbinger of more soulless meta-narrative to come. A shame, if it happened, given that even “Too Many Cooks” is a kid’s parade compared to the bizarre genius that Klausner brings to the table:
Likewise, there is not a great deal of room in the show’s structure for the characters to grow or change, and a lot of the season’s funniest moments play on that idea, too: The standout episode this season, “Italian Pinata,” dove deep into both Julie’s and Billy’s emotional landscapes, as she sold herself out for the friendship of some brash Jersey girls while he went undercover as a recently out newbie, ready-made for fetishizing by a particular kind of gay dude.
But any amount of change or transformation in this show has to come with an asterisk, because ultimately we are here to interact, and identify, with this pair of way too smart, stunted — difficult — people. So where did this season’s sense of transcendence — confidence, ambition — come from? By doubling down on exactly that idea: That just because you get introspective doesn’t mean you get better.
So along with the stronger presence of Julie’s therapist mother (Andrea Martin) and more appearances by Billy’s nibbishy brother (Fred Armisen), both of whom serve to shore up that central idea of the emotional stasis that directly connects to the stasis of their careers in show business, we also get swooping, unexpected deep-dives into the center of their real, adult, non-cartoonish human souls.
In this regard Julie’s best episode is the finale: A dizzyingly fast ride on the movie-option roller coaster that replicates extremely quickly her rise and fall from an abortive scriptwriting break. This also links us to a C-story involving her PBS-employee boyfriend’s jealousy over her sexual exploits in 2001, which is edgy enough to be funny, but chill enough that it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to impress you.
And it’s that last note that’s key, because for Billy, there is not one standout episode that defines his seasonal arc in this way. Billy Epstein began to differ from Eichner’s usual hypersensitive characters — the very intense Craig, from “Parks & Recreation”; the almost dangerously unhinged Billy of “Billy on the Street” — almost immediately. That, in itself, is a key to the show’s intentions: By trading in Billy’s usual hyper-emotional explosiveness for a more grounded, hyper-verbal loneliness, Billy becomes a foil, not to say straight man, to Julie’s more conventional, over the top wildness.
Early on, quietly, the show claimed a gravitas and nuance around gay guy/straight girl relationships that has, over two seasons, risen to equal status with the greats: Right up there with Dom and Doris (Murray Bartlett and Lauren Weedman) of “Looking,” or Cal and Kathy of “East Siders” (Kit Williamson and Constance Wu, the latter in her breakthrough role) in their respectful and respectable rehabilitation of a real-life dynamic that’s often seemed utterly doomed to pop culture camp.
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the personalities in play. Think about Tina Fey’s knowing portrayal of “herself” as Liz Lemon in “30 Rock,” and you could draw the line there:
If “Julie Kessler” is a joke about Julie Klausner, “Billy Epstein” might be the truth about Billy Eichner.
And it’s that last point, I think, that has lifted the show from its original mandate more than anything: While the sexual jokes and exploits on the show have always marked it as purposely transgressive, rather than simply using its unique web presence for shock value, this year has seen Billy Epstein’s sexuality explored and expressed in ways that have literally never been on television before.
As beautiful as “Looking” always was, especially in its moments of sexual triumph, there is something entirely new to the honesty surrounding Billy’s sexuality in this second season of “Difficult People.” I’d usually say it must be a cold day in a warm climate for this kid right here to praise the sexual introspection of yet another good-looking Manhattan white guy, but the particular way it is posed, interrogated, put into context and expressed, with humility and compassion, is altogether new.
“Difficult People” doesn’t have to dig out from under shame by setting off fireworks every time Billy kisses a guy, or even showing the powerful and poignant moments of intimacy that we see in “Looking” and fantastic Australian import “Please Like Me.” (And most surprisingly, speaking of problematic, this last season of “Girls.”)
Billy talks about what he likes and wants, both in a partner and in bed, avoids the situations that squick him out, answers any question put to him, and all of this with the simple dignity of a man past worrying whether that dignity is something that can ever be granted, or only ever merely claimed.
Billy Epstein doesn’t need to forcefully center himself, come Season 2, because he’s already at the center. It’s a rock-solid foundation that most straight people are equipped with from birth, and one that increasingly comes to define us all.
As fraught as the conversation around conversational fillips like “just happens to be gay,” and other normalizing influences, even marriage itself, can get, we sometimes forget that ultimately, transgression can be a necessary part of the journey, not necessarily its endpoint. I think that’s the question of the decade.
The recent “Looking” movie, in fact, was almost entirely about this very question: It is nice to feel revolutionary, to put a lifetime of shame behind you by rejecting social norms and paradigms — but is it the absolute end goal? Are we so interested in rejecting those old-school pressures of hetero-normativity that marriage equality is something to denigrate? Are we so bored by some imaginary glut of tolerance and acceptance that any amount of chill must be tantamount to concession?
I don’t know and I have zero desire to be lectured about it, but I do know that there is something revolutionary in Billy Epstein’s — and therefore “Difficult People’s” — refusal to make sex do more work than the work it’s ultimately meant to do: To exist, both as an art form and the highest possible experience of connection, without also needing validation for doing so.
There are a thousand ways to be difficult, to create difficulty, to encounter it, to process or promote, or synthesize and transcend it. We are all difficult people, in various ways — I just can’t believe sexuality was never meant to be one of them. If any of us has carved out enough space, in all the danger, for that to be a realistic goal, it’s something that deserves respect, and celebration.