tv review: please like me
Josh (Josh Thomas) is a gangly, light-haired young man who describes himself as looking like a ‘fifty-year-old baby,’ and he has just ordered a massive sundae. He’s talking about not being able to properly enjoy things, and complaining about his ‘rubbish face.’ Across from him, his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) waits for him to stop talking before finally interrupting. She says they should break up because they’ve drifted apart, and also because he’s gay. “This $19 sundae’s suddenly pretty fucking humiliating,” Josh replies.
This is the hilariously awkward opening scene of Please Like Me, whose second season has just premiered in Australia and whose first season is currently on American screens. It follows a group of twenty-something friends living in Melbourne; it’s a bit like Girls, if the characters on that show didn’t seem to hate each other as much.
In fact, there’s hardly anything antagonising about Please Like Me; Josh and his friends all seem to genuinely like each other. There’s an easy and natural chemistry shared by the cast, which includes Josh’s boyfriend Geoffrey (Wade Briggs) and his best friend Tom (Thomas Ward). In fact, the moments featuring the cast sitting and around talking about nothing in particular are often the show’s best and most memorable scenes.
This easygoing tone is present throughout the entire series, especially in its presentation of Josh’s sexuality. While having progressive and normalised depictions of LGBT characters on television is nothing new, especially in the midst of shows like Modern Family and Orange is the New Black, the show’s nonchalant depiction of Josh’s sexual awakening is still refreshing. It doesn’t come to define who he is; rather it’s treated as just another facet of his personality. As Josh says, ‘Coming out, to me, just seems so 90s.’
The closest the show ever comes to having one of these “90s” moments is in the series’ third episode, in which Auntie Peg (Judi Farr), Josh’s devout Christian great-aunt, defends Josh to a homophobic priest after dragging him and his friends to church. On most shows, this scene would feel forced and trite, but Please Like Me has so much affection for its characters that it works. This scene exemplifies one of the shows greatest strengths: it has the ability to be sweet, but not corny, and to be uncomfortable without ever turning into cringe comedy.
Please Like Me also features one of the best female roles on mainstream television in Josh’s bipolar mum, Rose (Debra Lawrence). What could have easily been played as a one-note character is instead a complex, comedic and warmhearted portrait of mental illness. Rose’s constant reluctance to accept the fact that she’s “mental” feels bracingly honest, it isn’t glossed over or presented in a manner that feels inauthentic or sanitised for television. When she bursts out in tears on her way to therapy, it isn’t because she’s nervous or worried about the state of her mental health. Instead, she’s afraid someone will recognise her at the doctor’s office, to which Josh responds, ‘No one’s going to see you, Mum. And if they do see you, they’re probably mental too, so that’s nice!’
There isn’t anything remarkable about the show’s plotting; episodes revolve around Josh helping his mother sign up for an online dating website, or attending an AFL game, even though he hates sport. But intricate story lines wouldn’t feel appropriate here. Please Like Me is a quiet show about average people doing average things: attending parties, setting up online dating profiles, seeing a doctor.
At 27, Josh Thomas has an almost precocious view of these situations. He’s been around long enough to know that these are the types of experiences that end up shaping a person, that there’s an importance in the mundane. He knows that a $19 sundae could sometimes be bigger and more significant than that, and it can be pretty fucking humiliating.