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'Difficult People' gets real about what it takes to live in New York

In praise of selfishness.
Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner star in "Difficult People." Season 3 is now airing on Hulu. Credit: KC Bailey, Hulu
Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner star in "Difficult People." Season 3 is now airing on Hulu. Credit: KC Bailey, Hulu

New York had a very flattering run in movies and TV. For a few decades now, people believed the streets were clean instead of a hazardous obstacle course, New Yorkers' social lives looked like “Friends” rather than watching it from our sofa, and that an apartment anywhere in Manhattan was affordable on your own.

Myths aside, don’t misunderstand — Lin-Manuel Miranda wasn’t wrong when he dubbed it the “greatest city in the world.” But he left out how difficult it can be on the people who live in it.

That’s where “Difficult People” comes in. Hulu’s original series returned for its third season on Aug. 8, bringing back the two most realistic New Yorkers in entertainment with Julie Kessler (creator/writer Julie Klausner) and Billy Epstein (Billy Eichner).

As the title implies, these are not nice people. It would be easy to dismiss their jaded attitude as just typical comedians, but here’s a secret about them that’s also true for New Yorkers: They’re bitter because they’re idealists. New York City forces you to cultivate selfishness as a survival mechanism.

The selfishness of Julie and Billy is distinct from other modern series set in the city. The closest analogue in terms of New York life is “Broad City,” but theirs is a selfishness rooted in obliviousness. And while “Girls” was rightly praised for its realism about the personal and professional struggles of young women, they were by turns so narcissistically selfish that it’s a wonder they didn’t shift planetary orbits.

But Julie and Billy are selfish out of self-defense, and that’s getting much closer to the core of many New Yorkers; it’s how they survive.

Professionally, you’re defending your aspirations against a city full of the most talented, beautiful, intelligent people. Personally, you’re defending your time and energy by having a small social circle of people you actually care about.

Selfishness becomes your shield, and humor your sword to keep fighting for your place in the city. Because magic does happen — why else would we stay? You get the part you auditioned for; you find someone as weird as you; sometimes, even those insane lines for Cronuts and rainbow-colored food are worth it. But to be ready for it, you need to be selfish.

 
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