Lunchtable TV Talk: Difficult People & Casual

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In typical gluttonous fashion (for me), I inhaled all of the first seasons of both Difficult People and Casual within the last week (among other things). My conclusion, at first, was that Hulu is the platform for “bad humans” – the unlikable, negative, snarky types that we imagine we ourselves are not but enjoying watching in others (as long as they are not real and in our own daily lives). We enjoy seeing both their snark and sarcasm (which seems funny and sometimes smart/incisive) but also their failures and falls (which seems both relatable and also a-long-time-coming for people who are so unpleasant). I’d include The Mindy Project in this Hulu-based conglomeration of self-centered character comedy (even if I would not call all these things strictly comedy, and even though Mindy started on network TV, was canceled and snapped up by Hulu, which has arguably improved the show, in my opinion). But then I would be remiss if I did not state that Hulu isn’t the exclusive refuge of damaged-people comedramedy. You can get your fill of that kind of stuff all over the place – You’re the Worst is probably the best example, and one of the endurance runners (it’s back with its third season at the end of August). These kinds of shows take a while to catch on, if they do at all. This might be why they find their homes on non-network platforms, like Hulu.

These initial impressions, though, aren’t quite the whole picture. It’s a pretty obvious statement, but people are rarely, if ever, just bad, negative, bitter, cruel, difficult to the core just because they can be. Our protagonists in Difficult People clearly have family issues, and when we see how these unfold, we can see why the main characters are as damaged and making-light-of-it as they are/do. I watched Difficult People and enjoyed it (but was perhaps not as enamored of it as I should have been because I was also defrosting my freezer at the same time, which should have been an hour-long job that turned into an eight-hour ordeal). I guess it’s not necessary to be able to relate to the characters for a show to be good or enough – for example, on some abstract level I could relate to ‘protagonist’ Julie’s neuroses and self-involvement after seeing her mother. But real people, were Julie real, might gain some self-awareness from this kind of thing. She might not go on to railroad and take for granted her long-suffering, PBS-employee boyfriend, Arthur (the brilliant James Urbaniak). (I could be wrong, of course – I have plenty of acquaintances who are completely blind and lacking in self-awareness.)

Her best friend, Billy (our other ‘protagonist’) is the only person she confides in, does not take for granted, never criticizes, is supportive of… and there is some relatability in that, but not enough.

For me, the first season of Difficult People was quite entertaining, but ‘not enough’, which is not the most descriptive or resounding praise. It had a few twists that showed real glimmers of satisfying brilliance (for example, the dog-park con, the child menu restaurant, simultaneously breaking into the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song, which is fitting considering that the show is a nod to Curb’s misanthropy). Despite not being quite enough in its first act, I am looking forward to seeing what its second act offers.

I expected Casual to be something along the same lines – comedy with a dash of humanity, all mixed up with some snarky sarcasm and unpleasant people. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not what I expected. At the risk of sounding hokey, I found myself moved in one way or another in almost every episode in Casual’s first season.

I, like most, had only seen Michaela Watkins, one of the series’ leads, in comedic and mostly in roles as the crazy/annoying/weird neighbor/ex-wife, etc. I’d never seen her be a lead, much less in a semi-dramatic role. She brings a sense of reality and vulnerability to the role of Valerie; you like her even when she’s making a mess of things and root for her, knowing what she has been through. She is very human, very feeling, eminently fallible, but always doing her best. In Casual, we meet Valerie just after her divorce (her husband has cheated on her with a younger woman, and Watkins channels just the right amount of pain-as-bitterness to reflect this), when she and her teenage daughter, Laura, have moved in with Valerie’s brother, Alex. Both Valerie and Alex are successful people, but their personal and emotional lives are a mess; it’s clear that they have a very close sibling relationship and, as becomes clear over the course of the first series, have had to rely on each other thanks to their flaky non-parenting parents.

Casual made me laugh, actually made me cry a couple of times, and on the whole, was enough because it spoke to me on many levels, because it had a bittersweet quality to it, because it could embrace cynicism without being caustic, because it was imperfect and still beautiful.

Childless Woman’s Lament

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I do not have children. Some lost by chance, some lost by choice. I am middle-aged. Sometimes I am deeply content and relieved to be childless, but I am a cliché in that I started to feel that telltale pang of need and/or desire when I hit 30. I never thought I would feel it.

I find myself getting overly and perhaps inexplicably emotional now from superficial triggers. Sometimes when I see a pregnant woman on the tram, sometimes when I see someone with a baby, sometimes when an email circulates at work about someone’s impending maternity leave. Most frequently, the strangest things set me off – often television plots and characters finding themselves unintentionally pregnant, their expressions of uncertainty, their handling of the private fear and joy that early pregnancy brings on and their handling of the unintentionally hurtful things people say to them while the pregnancy is a secret. And it makes me sad and contemplative.

Fictional Mindy Lahiri’s surprise pregnancy on The Mindy Project, a show I never intended to watch but did, brought tears to my eyes. Even when Uma Thurman’s character in television’s crappiest show, The Slap, faced a surprise pregnancy, and her journey (one of my least favorite words) from shock and doubt to acceptance and joy, I found myself feeling choked up. Oh, and of course every single week on Call the Midwife.

The most profound sadness came when I read and reread (and reread) an article from the late neurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi, who recently died at age 37. It would have been a sad story anyway, but his eloquence and the peace with which he expresses himself as he wrote parting words for his baby daughter before he died is heartbreaking.

The ending in particular made me cry more than once. I don’t know why I am reading it repeatedly when the grief it generates is so close to the surface and raw, but its beauty keeps pulling me in to read it again:

Yet one person cannot be robbed of her futurity: my daughter, Cady. I hope I’ll live long enough that she has some memory of me. Words have a longevity I do not. I had thought I could leave her a series of letters – but what would they really say? I don’t know what this girl will be like when she is 15; I don’t even know if she’ll take to the nickname we’ve given her. There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple. When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

-Paul Kalanithi (RIP)