It might be weird to admit this, since they’re fictional characters and not real friends, but it’s so nice to be back with Billy and Julie again. Hulu’s “Difficult People,” which returns for a second season today, is a show that wears its unique but tricky concept on its sleeve — focusing on the misadventures of two people who tend to reap what they sow means that much of the comedy comes from their own self-imposed downfall. And it’s so much fun to watch.
That being said, semantics are important when it comes to this show, because the central characters, played by Julie Klausner (also the show creator) and Billy Eichner, aren’t BAD people. There’s real humanity to them. Unfortunately temptation and weakness often lead them astray, but when this happens it’s not hard to understand where they’re coming from.
In the three episodes made available for critics, just as in Season 1, Billy and Julie continue trying to find love and professional success in a somewhat absurd take on New York, one rich with ridiculous trends and badly behaving celebrities. (Okay, maybe not as absurd as we might think.) There’s even a little travel to exotic lands like New Jersey. What remains constant is their abiding friendship, the one thing they can rely on beyond bland boyfriends (James Urbaniak), nagging mothers (Andrea Martin) and an endless string of one-time lovers (everyone Billy hooks up with).
“Difficult People” is the sort of show that will structure an entire subplot around a joke relating to the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie” (sorry Jane Fonda), that will poke active fun at “The Blacklist” (sorry, NBC Universal). There’s some incredible reference work happening here, the sort that challenges even the most savvy pop culture nerd, but the inclusion that comes with recognizing each mention proves super-rewarding — like discovering an in-joke you have with someone you thought was a total stranger. And so many of the jabs are framed in a smart, sharp way that even if you might miss the exact reference point, the context is clear.
Likely driven by the strength of that material (though having Amy Poehler as an executive producer probably doesn’t hurt) the guest stars are as over-the-top amazing as Season 1. In the episodes screened, Nathan Lane brings a dark edge, John Mulaney is full of surprises and Tina Fey appears as the most hilarious version of herself seen to date. Beyond that, the secondary ensemble continues to delight, including Cole Escola as preening Matthew and new cast member Shakina Nayfack as a trans woman with complicated personal politics.
Beyond such character work, this is not a show which (so far) digs into the idea of serialized narratives — episodes tend to wrap up tidily, usually with our favorite duo unsuccessful but undefeated. There’s almost something cartoonish in that, though we don’t mean that in a bad way. Just in a way that acknowledges how much this is a show driven by maintaining the status quo.
That said, what would happen to “Difficult People” if Billy and Julie were ever to truly change? The answer depends, of course, on what form that change took. There are three scenarios for “Difficult People” as Season 2 unfolds. One is the possibility that somehow, both Billy and Julie find some ability from within for real change — change that maybe even allows them to unlock their real creative talents.
Another is that somehow, change comes from the outside — specifically in the form of their own TV show, the long-awaited dream. But there’s no proof that such an opportunity would make them extrmely different people. More importantly, there’s no proof that it would even make them happy.
And finally, the last option is that Julie and Billy continue to flail around, failing to figure out how to make that leap from the edge of obscurity to the fame they genuinely crave. The intriguing thing about these directions is that the least interesting is the one where Julie and Billy grow and change from within, because that’s not the show we’ve been watching. It’d be intriguing to see “Difficult People” attempt something that’d likely be a real tonal shift, but we’d miss the catharsis of seeing this irrepressable duo lash out at the world which refuses to acknowledge their specialness.
Because here’s what matters: These aren’t bad people. They’re just… you know. Difficult.
The first two episodes of “Difficult People” Season 2 are streaming now on Hulu.