We're recapping Difficult People, episode by episode. Make a wish.
Let’s get ready to rum… do the best we can! So reads the banner in the high school gym where Difficult People's "36 Candles" opens. Think of it as our road map for the episode.
Arthur is competing in a PBS versus NPR sports ball, er, basketball game that Billy and Julie are present for but not watching.
The typically refined, mild-mannered public media players morph into hilariously macho yet inept caricatures who are incapable of dribbling, getting fouled for moving too slowly to be considered running, and spewing trash talk that includes, "Suck this American dick!" They're doing the best they can, which is to say very poorly.
Between Billy's teenage flashbacks to waiting under the bleachers for rumored hand jobs, our resident difficult people are on the hunt for the worst cabaret show playing in Manhattan. They find a one-woman show about how hoarding catalogs led to joining AA, but that doesn't seem like it could top what they found last year: a show in which a woman sang about her abortions in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.
"Those were wordy abortions," Julie recalls.
Billy gets a text from DeNeil Tinder, one of a handful of "app guys" he's talking with by text but wary of meeting in person. DeNeil's coming to New York. Julie wants to meet him, but Billy's not so sure.
Then Julie finds it. Searching for My Jake Ryan: How My 16-Year-Old Boyfriend Ruined My Life, A Journey in Song. A cabaret tangentially related to 16 Candles? Yep, this is the show they've been looking for, the perfect addition to their annual tradition of seeing an awful show on Julie's birthday eve — since actual birthday days "always shit the bed."
Billy asks what birthday has been Julie's worst, but she cannot choose when they all tie for last. The only thing her mom hasn't done is pull a 16 Candles and forget her birthday. As Billy observes, there's still time.
Miracle of miracles, Arthur launches a basketball through the hoop to score the sole successful shot of the game, thereby winning it. "Touchdown! We won," his teammate yells, as others hoist a container of room-temp chamomile to pour over their MVP.
Post-game, Arthur is carrying an obscenely large trophy around, congratulations and high-fives from strangers building his ego. Billy and Julie are contemplating going to Giuliana Rancic's restaurant, where they serve ice, water, steam, and rain. But Julie has to get home to recap T.I. and Tiny: A Family Affair. She might, however, put her head in the oven to split the difference.
Julie suggests getting together with DeNeil, but he's still in Atlanta. And also, Billy doesn't want to mix the intimately known guys he talks to on his phone with the guys he has anonymous sex with. Julie pitches that there might be an overlapping part of this Venn diagram. Billy doesn't hate the idea, and DeNeil's mostly in Atlanta, anyway. So even if they meet and it's a disaster, he won't be reminded of it all the time.
Promise me, when it does work out, you'll never take him for granted, Julie says dreamily. Arthur breaks in to tell her (with the nickname duct tape, this time) that men he's never met are showing camaraderie. "Arthur, please, the soulmates are talking," Julie says. As we have it in John Hughes terms, this makes Julie the Sam, Arthur the geek, and Billy the Jake.
Now, for birthday times with Marilyn. She's brought Julie to the country club for lunch to soak up the birthday attention for herself (not to soak up the bread basket's calories, though). It's a plot Julie sees right on through. Marilyn asks what Julie is grateful for. She replies she's grateful it's not her 11th birthday, when her mom abandoned her at a Benihana. Marilyn tells her to get over it. Julie wants an apology, though, or at least an acknowledgement of how fucked up it was that she thought her mom left and was never coming back.
Marilyn's club pals swing by the table and she tells them she's celebrating the 36th anniversary of the day she gave birth after two and a half days of excruciating labor. What a charming tableside chat. The couple gift the feuding duo with a free spa day. They thank them, and Marilyn proceeds to put a thank you in Julie's mouth, spoon-feeding the gratitude she'd like to hear from her daughter, who wouldn't have this spa day if her mom weren't kind enough to invite her to the club. Jesus.
All Marilyn wants is a compliment. All Julie wants is for her mom to be less selfish, holding up the shining example of how she sort of tricked Julie into having a "mom-themed" bat mitzvah that featured a Peg Bundy table. Julie though it was Kate Pierson from the B-52s! And the bread basket is brought back to smooth over the fighting with carbs.
At the restaurant, Billy's in the midst of deliveries and Denise is in the midst of being a full-blown bitch. What on earth is her problem? Maybe we've addressed it before, but at this point it's starting to feel like her character is more of an attitude than a human. Anyway, Billy explains he's finally meeting a guy from Tinder tonight and he doesn't want to be late. She, for whatever reason, obliges.
Meanwhile, Julie and Marilyn are at the spa, needling each other in the least soothing way. Chloe Sevigny has booked all the rooms as a wrap gift to allay the American Horror Story: Hotel cast's PTSD, which means their treatments are delayed. But it also means free champs, trademark Heather Dubrow 2013, and more time to read silly advice articles in trashy magazines.
Billy is off work and meeting up with DeNeil Tinder at DeNeil's sister's place. Billy and DeNeil already know each other well, which means they know they don't want anything to do with small talk. So they hook up instead. Directly following the sex, Billy realizes that DeNeil is — gasp! — the brother of Denise, restaurant Denise, evil Denise. In that very instant, she walks in to find Billy and her partly undressed brother.
"Of course the one time I try combining sex and intimacy, I end up shitting where I eat. Eating where I fuck? Fucking where I shit?" Billy explains the situation on a recap walk with Julie on their way to the 16 Candles-inspired cabaret nightmare that we don't even get to see and we are sad about that.
Weirdly though, Denise was nice to Billy during the debacle and invited him to join the De-family for dinner. This is next-level intimacy stuff, and Billy is not sure how to connect with a love interest's fam. "Is there any universe in which you consider just being yourself?" Julie asks. Mmmno. Plan B: "What if you Sharon Stone it?" You know, her method of acting that involves making the facial expression you'd like to deliver and trusting that the emotion will follow. She lied about being in Mensa, after all. Maybe Sharon was on to something.
Julie comes home to Arthur, who is wrapped up in his new macho doofus persona and saying things like "man cave" and "quit riding me, woman." Julie isn't having it and tells him he's not acting like a man, he's acting like a bro. And lord knows if she wanted to be with a bro she would've blown Doug Ellin at an Entourage party she and Billy crashed. K?
At the restaurant, Matthew is whining about taking over Billy's delivery duties. Denise explains that Billy has to come to the De-family dinner, much to Matthew's horror. "What's happening?" he cries. "What, Patti Lupone suddenly doesn't hate Bernadette Peters??" Oh no, she definitely does, Denise assures. This is all part of a scheme to make Denise and DeNeil's aunts, noted bitches, shred Billy during dinner so that Denise doesn't have to. That'll result in a breakup and all will be right again.
"Oh mama," Matthew says on his way out the door, "you are as smart as Sharon Stone." He's immediately mugged.
Now, Marilyn and Julie are at a bar, getting drunk, and doing karaoke. "Love Shack" is their song of choice. And this might be the longest birthday eve ever on record. Regardless, the Kessler Girls are wasted and bonding and Marilyn even says that she loves Julie — sort of. They overstay their welcome onstage and are confronted by some young ladies who would like to take their turn. "We took a vote and nobody likes you," Marilyn tells them. In a huff and reminded of some asshole people they knew when Julie was a kid (this little wrinkle in the story is funny but feels extraneous), the Kesslers leave resolved to go to said assholes' home and fuck with them.
The De-family dinner is not going very well, but Billy's smiling his way through it — and it's kind of working. The aunties actually like him, and they think he and DeNeil are cute together. "I don’t care what Doctor Ben Carson says," one aunt muses, "I like when nice men kiss.” Same, auntie, same.
Denise sends Billy and DeNeil to get the dessert because she can't cope with this turn of events and reveals that she wanted her aunts to hate Billy. In the kitchen, Billy is Sharon Stone-ing a little too hard and DeNeil is starting to grow uncomfortable around all the emotions and confections.
Marilyn and Julie are doing the old poop-fire-bag trick. But the house they've arrived at is no longer home to the asshole family they hated. Those people moved away, and they've pranked some nice old lady instead. "She probably deserved it in some way anyway," Marilyn says as they take their leave. These two are actually having fun. She wishes Julie a happy birthday and says she loves her. Julie wishes her a happy labor-versary and says she can be a fun mom — a real compliment. Marilyn apologizes for all the bad birthdays past and says she wants a Benihana do-over.
At the restaurant the next morning-ish, it is officially Julie's birthday. Billy gifts her with an Etsy artist's portrayal of the two of them as Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson in the "Shiny Happy People" video. Billy tells Julie that the De-family dinner went well. He smiled through it and wound up getting emotional over pie. "I think there's something to the Sharon Stone-ing thing," Billy says, as a bedraggled Matthew eavesdrops. He still likes DeNeil, even after meeting his family, something Julie says can be quite the clit flattener. "Hey, didn't e. e. cummings say that?" Billy asks. Yes. Julie wants to meet DeNeil, and Billy agrees to invite him to her do-over birthday dinner.
Which Marilyn is already drunk at — and yelling about the unflattering atrocity that is middle-parted hair. Julie is drunk also and goes to the bathroom to puke. Arthur is still being annoying with a baseball cap on backward. He proclaims himself the most athletic person (ha ha ha) at the table and is invited to do some action-packed grilling or whatever.
Matthew shows up because somehow he knows they are at Benihana, and he says that he realized what Billy meant by Sharon Stone-ing. So Matthew tells DeNeil that Billy doesn't really have emotions for him. But Billy explains that he does have feelings for DeNeil, even though he was Sharon Stone-ing at first. This confession backfires, because emotional Billy is not the same as texting Billy. The sappiness is too much, DeNeil says, and he splits. Billy goes after him.
Somehow the poop-bag prankee and her husband are there, too. She points out Marilyn, who makes a run for it.
In another mishap waiting to happen, Arthur gets overly cocky, flips hot meats into his eyes, and grills his arms.
The birthday girl is still in the bathroom, now pep-talking herself. And Kate Pierson walks in. "Do you have any idea what your work has meant to me?” Julie asks. Kate does not, but has a sneaking suspicion she's about to find out. Julie explains that at 11, she saw the B-52s and “realized this is who I want to be one day, you gave me someone to aspire to. And I didn’t feel so alone anymore.”
It's a beautiful little moment, and Julie leaves Kate in peace. She walks into the restaurant to find that everyone is gone, reliving her 11-year-old Benihana trauma. "I can't believe it," she says. "I've been fucking abandoned on my birthday — again." Cue the Thompson Twins.
We're back where we started, at the gym. This time with cake. Billy and Julie sit cross-legged across from each other, living out that final scene from 16 Candles.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Billy realizes he's not ready to leave behind compartmentalizing just yet. You have to keep your expectations low, Julie advises, because "a birthday’s just another shitty day but with cake you have to share." Julie knows she should no longer let down her guard around Marilyn.
"Happy birthday, Jules," he says. "Make a wish."
It already came true, she says. "No, I'm joking, I'm a very unhappy person. but I'm glad you're here. "
They hear coughing from below the bleachers. A kid apologizes as he emerges from the bleachers. He says he heard a rumor if you wait long enough...