Julie Klausner, Billy Eichner (HULU)

There are certain aspects of “Devil’s Three-way” that don’t work, so it’s a convenient coincidence that it’s paired with “Pledge Week” for this review; in juxtaposition, it’s clear the third episode of Difficult People gets several things right that the second episode gets wrong. “Devil’s Three-way” is trying to accomplish a few goals too many, resulting in an enjoyable but ultimately overstuffed episode. Having too many good ideas isn’t the worst problem to have, but it’s a more obvious and potentially disruptive problem when it occurs so early in a series, at a time careful, deliberate development is particularly important for the introduction of story and audience retention. In order to ace an audition, Billy learns what it’s like to have a father figure from Nate, a real man’s man. Due to some bad advice leading to a hit-and-run, Billy loses the part. At the same time, this subplot reaffirms that Billy uses comedy to seek the approval of others, since his father passed away before his son had a chance to bask in his pride. It’s especially important to explore difficult characters’ motivations, but the execution of this particular plot misses because it fails to simultaneously explore Nate’s character. The pilot’s leisurely pace and organic plotting allowed the character and thematic development to shine, whereas in this episode, a relatively wacky sitcom plot seems to have been grafted onto a more grounded show. The world of the (barely) working actor is fleshed out further, but Nate is established as more of a catalyst for Billy’s story than anything else, lessening his believability as a character.

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Julie’s plot, as well as the C-story involving her mother, suffer from the same problems. Julie also depends on strangers’ approval for validation because she feels like she’s never able to please her mother, a woman whose priority of perfection leads her to try plastic surgery. Unable to impress Marilyn with her professional achievements, Julie distracts herself with another, less important party she’s failed to win over—a man from her childhood. Hijinks ensue, as efforts made to impress this man turn into a failed attempt at a three-way involving her boyfriend. This over-the-top, clichéd scenario reestablishes the pilot’s illustration of Julie’s character, but neglects the character of Arthur. Nate’s role as co-owner of Billy’s workplace barely registers; likewise, Julie’s relationship remains a mystery, partly because the pair’s connection comes across as more of a platonic connection than a romantic one.

Time that might have been spent establishing the side characters is instead spent on admittedly amusing diversions like Vice Versa and What Are You Going To Do?, both of which required attention from a more ruthless editor this early in a series. While this second episode suffers from some disjointedness and unnecessary complexity, it thankfully maintains the pilot’s interest in thematic resonance. In an introduction that invites comparisons with Louie, a show that tracks the somewhat lonely life of a solo performer, this codependent comedy duo complete one another’s thoughts during their set and vent about others’ acts afterwards. Their friendship dominates their lives for good and for ill—but their time away from each other is just as crucial, whether or not it’s spent responsibly. Art is the subjective interpretation of life experience; Billy and Julie have to escape their personal bubble in order to conjure inspiration for their comedy. Thanks to their misadventures, they succeed at storytelling, but don’t recognize the importance of this moment professionally. While this may be a frustrating pattern for a show to establish, it’s a fairly realistic one.

The pilot established that this show is about the benefits and liabilities of being a difficult person, and “Pledge Week” expounds on this premise. Returning to these ideas throughout the series is important, because the show’s universal themes of ethics and work can attract an audience, whereas the relatively unsympathetic characters and obscure pop culture references alienate. The universality of Billy’s preoccupation with Hollywood is smartly demonstrated when his date, Fred, shares a parallel obsession with his professional field of dentistry. Fred thoughtfully asks Billy about his interests in an attempt to close the gap between them. Building relationships with others is always about that; some just require longer bridges than others. Furthermore, Billy’s plot involving his bias against “participators” in entertainment is at once specific to that industry and relatable to anyone who has developed certain occupation-based prejudices. An appearance by a sober magician (winningly played by Kate McKinnon) rounds out this successful subplot.

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The episode’s cold open shows how being rude can be a professional liability in show business; performers may be referred to as “talent,” but they’re still easily replaceable at the lower levels of the industry. Billy’s criticism of Chelsea Handler and Andy Cohen end up costing him the coveted bartender position on Watch What Happens: Live. A similar fate nearly befalls Arthur through no fault of his own, but due to his association with Julie. It’s clear from the outset of the show that prioritizing comedy above all else can be a detriment to the lives of those around Julie as well as her own, but this episode follows through on that idea when her antics nearly get Arthur fired from PBS. An awkward confrontation with Smash’s Mark Shaiman is based on a real-life instance where Klausner’s outspokenness backfired. In this instance, Julie executes a hilarious—if unrealistic—plan, in order to right her wrongs and return to Arthur’s good graces. To atone for critiquing celebrities, Julie capitalizes on the benefits of critiquing celebrities, and arranges for the first PBS roast in order to save the organization’s desperate pledge week. In the end, meanness wins out, and the show continues its tradition of complex endings, which are less expected and more interesting than the typical conclusions that require hugging and learning.

“Pledge Week” succeeds in instances where its predecessor comes up short. Instead of feeling contrived, the plotting is both specific to this world and universal enough to be relatable. The character of Arthur is also further fleshed out in the process; like Fred, Arthur’s own professional preoccupations parallel those of the main characters. Julie’s eccentricities when it comes to her showbiz-related obsessions and insecurities may seem over-the-top, but an unhealthy obsession with work and hobbies is as American as apple pie. Arthur lets his own freak flag fly when he starts lambasting a PBS pledge week host from the comfort of his own home, without fear of retaliation. The affectionate satire of PBS could be great for that cause, and it’s certainly great for developing the character of Arthur. The roles of Nate and Denise are still fuzzy, but at least they get a promising, banter-laced scene that shows the potential of their relationship, should the writers develop their characters.

Stray observations

  • I didn’t get to the second episode last week so I added it to this week’s review. My coverage will correspond with Hulu’s release schedule of one episode per week from here on out.
  • “Julie, we’ve tried three stories here and every time…nothing. It’s like my dick with women.” “At this point, I’d be okay if they even booed us.” “Yeah, like my dick with women.”
  • “Listen, we’re never going to have a sexist three-way with two girls and one guy because I strongly believe in my heart that men have enough privilege as it is in this society.”
  • “My mind began to wander when you started to generalize and I dozed off.”
  • I hope the robot mentioned refers to Craig Ferguson’s Geoff, wherever he is.
  • “It’s like Game Of Thrones: I want to be okay with it, but I’m not.”

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