Bad friends: ‘Difficult People’ is ‘Seinfeld’ for the social media age

720x405-Screen-Shot-2015-08-04-at-4.44.50-PM-1By JIM SABATASO

[A version of this review appears in the Aug. 27, 2015, edition of the Rutland Reader.]

A few weeks back, I discussed how Seinfeld proved it’s possible to build a popular TV show around a quartet of horrible misanthropes. Over the years, we’ve been treated to several successful variations on that theme in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Seinfeld in a bar), Arrested Development (Seinfeld with family), and The League (Seinfeld with football). Each series demonstrated that, regardless of setting, awful people are always fun to watch.

We can now add Difficult People to that list of merry malcontents. The series, which premiered on Hulu on Aug. 5, stars Julie Klausner (Ugly Americans) and Billy Eichner (Billy on the Street, Parks and Recreation) as fictionalized versions of themselves living in New York and trying to break into the comedy scene. That struggle for success has embittered the two best friends, who spend their days schlepping around the city staring into their iPhones and complaining about everything and everyone they encounter.

As Billy laments in the pilot episode: “Our lives are garbage and it’s the world’s fault.”

On the surface, Difficult People might look like another showbiz insider sitcom full of shrill, self-absorbed jerks, but it succeeds thanks to whip-smart writing and a fast pace that flows as smoothly as the invective spewing from the characters’ mouths. The dialogue is effortless, organic, and often shockingly funny as it indiscriminately insults and offends.

Executive producer Amy Poehler continues her post-Parks and Recreation hot streak of bringing great sitcoms to air. (She’s also the EP behind the equally hilarious and New York-centric Broad City.) But while we may have Poehler to thank for gifting us such a great comedy, this is most definitely Klausner and Eichner’s show.

The series is at its best when Klausner and Eichner get to cut loose and berate innocent strangers. The duo has an easy chemistry that makes for great banter as they encourage one another’s outrage. No one is safe from their cruelty — not passersby on the street or children sitting in front of them at a musical. But while the insults are finely crafted, the real humor lies in the over-the-top delivery. Both stars have perfected the art of righteous indignation.

However, watching people like this would be no fun if there were no comeuppances to be had. Fortunately, Julie and Billy’s bad behavior never goes unpunished. Like Seinfeld, karma has a way of finding these characters even if no lesson is ever learned.

The show is strengthened by the great supporting cast. SCTV alum Andrea Martin plays Julie’s psychiatrist mother Marilyn, a familiar meddling Jewish mom archetype that feels fresh in Martin’s capable comedic hands.

Character actor James Urbaniak is Arthur, Julie’s mild-mannered, PBS-employed boyfriend. Urbaniak, who’s best known for his voice work on The Venture Bros., shows off some subtly comedic chops as he plays the long-suffering straight man to Klauser’s chaotic Julie.

At times, the show’s obsession with popular culture veers into tedium, though your mileage may vary. References to celebrities and reality TV come so fast and furious — what the hell is a Vanderpump, anyway? — that it can be hard to keep up if you’re not similarly plugged into that world. Clearly Klausner and Eichner are, and while references are occasionally inscrutable, they largely work for these characters, who are themselves celebrity wannabes on the outside looking in.

Difficult People is Seinfeld for the social media age. And like that show, it succeeds not only in humor but also in relatability. Billy and Julie are our ids; our worst selves brought to life to voice the complaints, disappointments, and frustrations the rest of us normally repress. There is pleasure in seeing such disproportionate reactions to life’s daily struggles and the idiocy of others. After all, who wouldn’t want to laugh in the face of the person who tells you his kids are named Memphis and Maverick?

CHECK IT OUT: New episodes of Difficult People are available to stream every Wednesday on Hulu.