Wednesday, August 5, 2015

REVIEW: 'Difficult People' - Billy and Julie Go to the Theater and Crash an Oscars Party in 'Pilot'

Hulu's Difficult People - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Billy and Julie come up with an entrepreneurial scheme to sell bottled "library water-fountain" water. Julie gets in trouble for a controversial tweet.

Difficult People isn't the first original program Hulu has programmed. But it is a significant addition as it comes at a time where the online streaming service is trying to be more competitive with Netflix and Amazon. Those two services have largely been dominating the conversation. Now Hulu is trying to be taken more seriously in that fold. Difficult People is an often humorous new comedy. It definitely has some edges that could be problematic moving forward. But it's first episode is a very impressive start to a show that could grow into something great.

"Pilot" introduces several different threads that surprisingly all come together in a really strong way by episode's conclusion. The first episode largely focused on Billy and Julie moving around from location. They certainly had things that they were continually dealing with - like Billy's recent breakup with Josh. But each location also had its own source of humor. Each scene was as long as it needed to be. The humor was smart and edgy. It was easy to see why Billy and Julie are best friends and why the outside world doesn't always react well to them. Each scene was distinct. The humor in the opening sequence that culminated in the two seeing Annie on Broadway was different than the humor in the diner where Billy works. That, in turn, was different than their deluded attempts to market bottled library fountain water without actually doing any of the work themselves. And that was different than anything that was happening with Julie's mother who is very narcissistic (and also a great scene stealer). Despite all of those differences though, the rhythm of the show worked very well. All of these scenes culminated into something great at the Oscars party that continually gets out of hand because of the two. That shows that this show has a solid understanding of how comedic structuring can work to build something into being fantastic.

This first episode has the big task of getting the audience to understand who these main characters are. Their identities were made abundantly clear in the first moments both Julie and Billy appeared on screen. Both of them rushing to get to the theater on time was a fantastic way to open the show. It told the audience immediately that these are people who care more about themselves than others and aren't afraid to let them know it. They understand each other like no one else does. They feed into the others' delusions. Early in the episode, Billy turns to Julie's boyfriend Arthur and says, "Our lives are garbage and it's the world's fault." First of all, that is a great quote. But it also serves as a strong mission statement for how these people and the show views the world. Billy and Julie are not the type of people who will admit that they are the only reasons why they aren't more famous in the comedy world. People do recognize that they are comedians. But they certainly don't have any kind of fame. They are stuck working as a TV reviewer - for mostly Bravo shows - and a horrible waiter at a restaurant that never seems to get any work done at all. And yet, they wonder why those jobs don't get them noticed for something bigger and better.

Billy and Julie are very in tune to pop culture. They make jokes about Blue Ivy, R. Kelly, Susan Sarandon, Emmy Rossum, Giuliana Rancic and more in this first episode alone. They are smart jokes too even though their purpose is in showing just how insensitive these two people are capable of being. The humor really is the thing that makes both characters amusing to watch. They are inappropriate a ton of the time. They see no reason why they should censor themselves when children are sitting in front of them at the theater. Nor do they see anything wrong with inviting a bunch of unwelcome people to an Oscar party hosted by the sophisticated, slightly older people from PBS they don't known personally. And in the end, things don't get any better for them. They are stuck out on the street in an unknown neighborhood without Julie's phone or Billy's boyfriend. After obsessing over him for so much of the running time, Billy suddenly drops all interest in Josh because he has become too Jewish. For the little glimpse the audience gets, Josh truly does feel like someone who could go well with Billy. But as soon as Billy sees something he doesn't like, he just shuts it all down. The exact thing happened during their pitch meeting for the bottled library fountain water idea. Both Billy and Julie loved talking to each other about the other person in the room. They believed he would do anything for them because they think he has an inferior product - even though it is more eco-friendly and also an already savvy business model. As soon as they learn his children's names, they immediately leave and have no more interest in him and completely drop their "brilliant" idea. It's those moments that show just how they operate in life. They are willing to go along with things as long as they are interested in them. As soon as they lose that interest, they are gone. That is strong characterization to have for a first episode.

Sure, it all ends with Julie peeing herself in a New York City street after being humiliated online. But that's exactly what these characters deserve. It's a tricky balance for the show to find. Billy and Julie need to be funny while being so horrible to other people. It's easy to understand the amount of disdain everyone else feels towards Billy and Julie. But the audience still has to enjoy watching them. They can't get too much success either because of all the horrible comments they make. But they still need to feel like they are moving forward. This first episode was very funny. Difficult People has a lot of potential and I'm eager to see more.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Julie Klausner and directed by Andrew Fleming & Jeffrey Walker.
  • Marilyn read an article in the New York Times that it's a great time for women in comedy. And now, that's all she can talk about when she's not talking about herself. She's a character who will go a long way with just a little bit of screentime. She's hilarious with both Julie and Billy. I love that she framed a piece of paper where a child Julie said she wants to be a lawyer in her office. Those little details make her fun.
  • The other characters at Billy's place of employment could use a bit more development though. It seems Denise and Matthew only exist in order to be catty and condescending towards Billy while also having a lot of fun together.
  • It was such a small part but I really enjoyed Rachel Dratch as the cancer patient who just wanted Billy to box her meal to go. And then, she never got it because the rest of the people got too caught up in their own lives.
  • Hulu premiered two episodes online today. I will post a review of the second episode sometime tomorrow afternoon. The rest of the season will be released on a weekly basis every Wednesday, That's different than how Amazon and Netflix release their shows. It will be interesting to see if people will still be talking about Difficult People at the end of September though - when all the broadcast network shows return.