“Difficult People” isn’t for everyone, but that’s a big factor in its charm. The always whipsmart, fast-paced comedy created by Julie Klausner is extremely insular in its focus on Julie (Klausner) and Billy (Billy Eichner), pop culture-obsessed New York comedians whose bad attitudes are often the cause of their problems. But that focus means that as the show has progressed, the characters have had the chance to… well, maybe not “grow,” in the traditional sitcom sense. However, they do seem capable of change.
Which is good news, as Season 3 of a series like this could easily fall into a more-of-the-same trap. The core principles of “Difficult People” haven’t been altered — Julie and Billy are still best friends, and still relatively disdainful of anyone outside their friendship. But, based on the five episodes screened, “Difficult People” isn’t interested in treading water this season, contributing to a richer, more empathetic experience that never also fails to find the funny.
For, after years of striving to achieve creative success, Season 3 sees Julie and Billy really engaging with the questions so many people with aspirations find themselves facing: When is it time to give up on your dreams? Does it really count as giving up, or is it a sign of maturity to accept the path that your life is taking, and make choices accordingly? It’s big, existential stuff, pushing Klausner and Eichner towards their most nuanced performances yet.
There are some interesting twists to that theme along the way, as well as some strong work from the supporting ensemble, including the always-brilliant Andrea Martin as Julie’s mother Marilyn and Cole Escola and Shakina Nayfack as Billy’s annoying co-workers. Escola and Nayfack, both very different and hilarious scene-stealers, deservedly get more of the spotlight this season. Unfortunately, semi-regulars Gabourey Sidibe and Derrick Baskin, the owners of the cafe Billy works at, go relatively underserved in the episodes made available; hopefully their role is greater than revealed.
James Urbaniak as Julie’s long-suffering boyfriend Arthur deserves a special shoutout. While Arthur and Julie’s relationship has never seemed particularly healthy for either of them, Season 3 develops both sides of the relationship to a greater degree, aided and abetted by the fact that Urbaniak has an uncanny knack for communicating why, exactly, the two of them are still together.
Later in the season John Cho, as previously announced, plays an extended love interest for Billy (someone as “difficult” as Billy is), and the season’s other stellar guest stars include Larry Wilmore, Stockard Channing, Maury Povich, Vanessa Williams, Lucy Liu, Chris Elliott, and Rosie O’Donnell. There’s also the enjoyable return of Fred Armisen and Jackie Hoffman as Billy’s brother and sister-in-law.
The casting, as always, often enhances one key aspect of the show’s voice: “Difficult People” will always go deep with the film and TV show references, from the one-off quips to full-on parody sequences, like an intense but vindicating teardown of Woody Allen’s dalliance with making “television.”
In addition, “Difficult People” chooses to engage with 2017’s political climate in much the same way that it deals with the more toxic elements of Hollywood — both directly and indirectly, with Steve Bannon name drops as well as a full subplot inspired by Vice President Mike Pence’s attitude towards LGBTQ people. (There’s something telling about “Difficult People’s” general focus on Pence over Trump, actually, as if the show is deliberately warning viewers about who might be the more dangerous political force.)
The first three episodes, available beginning Tuesday, set up the fact that there’s a clear arc in place for the season, one that gives the show its essential humanity even as it unblinkingly jokes about 9/11, hate crimes, Roger Ailes, and of course Kevin Spacey.
“Difficult People” has always been a show to love for the way it explores friendship, but Season 3 looks beyond Billy and Julie’s central bond to try to understand what makes people genuinely happy. It’s not an easy question to answer. But from the title alone, you know that this show doesn’t mind that.
The first three episodes of “Difficult People” Season 3 are available now on Hulu.