As you can guess from the title, Hulu’s comedy series Difficult People is not a show driven by a desire to please everyone. It’s an acid-tongued New York comedy of narcissism and self-loathing, filled with some of the most esoteric pop culture gags on TV aside from Rick & Morty. Any show driven by Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner is going to be working on a highly specific wavelength of snark, wit, and sharply executed trashiness. There are seemingly dozens of prestige comedies on the air about the existential struggles of bored comedians, out-of-work actors and disenfranchised, Brooklyn-adjacent creatives. Where Difficult People takes a different route is in how knowingly it can exasperate viewers and take great pleasure in that.
Obviously, that can be a difficult sell for general audiences, but in season 3, the show has sharpened its focus to scalpel-like precision and put none other than director, writer. and all-round unsettling presence Woody Allen under their harsh gaze. One can’t help but wonder if Klausner and Eichner are secretly giddy over the timing of this release coinciding with the news that Allen’s next film will star tween favourites Selena Gomez and Elle Fanning. It all fits very well with this episode.
Julie goes to audition for a role in Allen’s latest Amazon series, which the casting director candidly notes will probably be offensive to some women. While Julie says she can’t in good conscience go forward with the audition, morbid curiosity gets the better of her and she gives it a go, arguing that she never gets any part so it doesn’t matter. The role is described as ‘Esther, white female, over 16, unfuckable’, and it’s as badly written as you can imagine. The phrase ‘old man yells at cloud’ comes to mind. Leaving the audition, wherein a spot of accidental bra burning took place, Julie sees anti-Allen protestors and talks her way into their good books, ignoring the status quo she helped to reinforce by even participating in the audition process. It’s one of the episode’s sharper points - everyone knows this guy is a skeezeball, women included, but so many of them just go along with it all because it’s the easier route. The casting director holding the auditions may let her opinions on Allen and his work flow freely - calling out the sexism, lack of people of colour, and outdated attitudes towards technology - but she’s still manning the fort for him, just as Amazon are still letting him make another TV show after the first one flopped.
For a brief moment, Julie feels glad to be on the right side of an issue, something her self-confessed ego doesn’t often allow for. Of course, that doesn’t last long as it turns out the bra burning was right up Woody’s street, and she is cast. Her conundrum over the issue rings true, and it’s a discussion you can imagine many an actor having with their agent. Not only does she fear condoning his awful behaviour in his private life and the misogyny of his films, she doesn’t want to support shoddy work.
Every discussion of Woody Allen I’ve encountered over the past several years has been predicated with the assumption that the art should be separated from the artist. That’s a long, complex and exhausting issue to detangle, and it’s not a notion without merit. It’s something we do every day and something we have to do simply because society forces us into those impossible messes at any given moment. How do you make conscious choices about the pop culture you consume when basically everything has been tainted, directly or otherwise, by badness? Remember, we live under the reign of a reality TV show judge whose Secretary of the Treasury executive-produced Mad Max: Fury Road.
This is a problem Difficult People is aware of, but it also punctures one of the oft-untouched suppositions of the Death of the Author: Sometimes you can separate art from artist, but that doesn’t make the art leftover any less shit, and Woody Allen has been responsible for many years of terrible films that got made solely because he’s Woody Allen. Misogyny didn’t stop him; Child rape accusations didn’t stop him; Even dwindling profits can’t end his career. Not when everyone is queuing up to kiss his backside. The series Julie is cast in - as, inexplicably, a cigarette girl working in a retro barbershop - is clearly garbage: The script is hokey, the male lead clearly another Allen stand-in, and Julie’s part barely a step up from sexy lamp. Still, everyone works on it, even when Allen leaves set early or just disappears to have a nap. The genius is forever accommodated for, no matter the cost or embarrassment.
Difficult People is a pretty ideal show to take on Allen (this episode also features a fake Mike Pence-endorsed gay conversion act that Billy goes along with for a measly $6k). What better way to take on the ludicrous hoop-jumping of celebrity and political narcissism than through the lens of two narcissists for whom celebrity and pop culture are their lifeblood? They also, as they themselves note, are used to doing the wrong thing and still getting nothing from it, a sharp contrast from the real world where Disney Channel stars sign up for Allen movies and their achingly young fans scramble to justify it without truly understanding what they’re defending. In Difficult People, Julie and Billy are familiar with consequences: That’s something that often eludes reality, especially if you’re Woody Allen.