By Tereza Walsbergerová
Chuck Palahniuk is not by far the only one who realises that being in one’s twenties can be extremely tough. In fact, there is one comedian in Australia who based his entire livelihood on this notion and even created a TV show around it. Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me is about a young Melburnian named Josh who has to take care of his bipolar mother while struggling with being perpetually single, awkward, and generally lethargic. Having developed from Thomas’ stand-up routine of the same name, the show contains the lightness of the stand-up genre combined with raw honesty of a social drama – a fusion that sets the show up for instant success which has not quite yet reached mainstream audiences outside Australia. This article’s goal is to not only introduce and review Please Like Me for the Re:Views reader, but to also possibly get the reader to (please) like Please Like Me.
Classic Coming-of-Age Story?
Based solely on the fact that the monologue spoken by the twenty-one-year-old Josh (Josh Thomas) which opens the entire show contains over hundred-and-thirty words and only takes about half a minute, it would be easy to assume that Please Like Me is just another fast-paced dialogue-heavy comedy about millennials for millennials. And in many ways, it is. That said, behind every piece of fast-paced dialogue and pop-cultural reference is a deeper meaning connected to some kind of issue that is a crucial part of life for any twenty-something-year-old.
Moreover, virtually none of those issues are all that funny at second glance. Josh’s awkward and uncomfortable laughter as he tries to explain to his love interest Geoffrey (Wade Briggs) that “studying a Bachelor of Creative Industries” is really not that interesting, his bittersweet questioning of “someone that good-looking” being “into him”, or his petulant bickering with the hospital nurse over whether his mother should or should not be having a headache after attempting to commit suicide by taking “quite a bit of Panadol” (“Rhubarb and Custard”) are good examples of such cases.
Furthermore, although the show certainly teaches the audience what every other coming-of-age show written in the past decade had – that being different trumps being ordinary – Thomas’s progressive characterizations also teach the audience that being different is a) not necessarily a win, and b) actually quite normal. In fact, it is quite difficult to find a character that could be called ordinary on Please Like Me. Even those characters which seem to exude normalcy at first, such as Dad (David Roberts) or Geoffrey, are soon revealed to be just as “weird” as everybody else.
Gender Roles and Sexuality
The allusion that Please Like Me is a show centred mainly around issues connected to homosexuality and homophobia is dashed quite fast when the audience learns that while Josh might not be entirely all right with being gay at first, he really does not want to dwell on it – his actual words are “I just can’t be bothered.” (“Portuguese Custard Tarts”). In a 2015 interview with Vanity Fair, Thomas admits that people often list being gay as Josh’s main characteristic. “But it’s not really a characterization—it’s just, I’m gay. And I just do that all the time. I never thought it was interesting, I never felt like we were crusading or anything. I just didn’t really have a choice.”
With this in mind, it can also be said that Please Like Me is one of the shows that break new ground by having a main character who just happens to be queer. That said, considering the fact that LGBTQ+ debate is still a current topic in Australian politics (Thomas himself is an advocate for gay marriage in Australia), and taking into account various gender stereotypes connected to Australia as a nation, all issues related to gender and sexuality in Please Like Me should at least be taken into consideration.
Nothing on this show fits neatly in a box, which may unnerve some audience members, but once one becomes accustomed to this fluid idea of the world, it actually starts to feel more natural and realistic. For example, while the character of Dad may seem like the epitome of the modern “aussie bloke” at first – complete with hyper-masculine mannerisms, jeans-and-shirt dress code, and obnoxious sports car – it soon becomes clear that he is actually overcompensating for his lack of what he perceives as masculinity. As the show progresses and Dad’s character develops, he becomes increasingly more in-touch with his emotional side, which results in such scenes as the one in which he clutches Josh’s labradoodle John and openly cries as Josh’s boyfriend Arnold sings “Chandelier” by Sia to him in “Simple Carbohydrates”.
Please Like Me is one of the shows that break new ground by having a main character who just happens to be queer.
In relation to his own son’s sexuality, Dad is certainly not entirely on board at first. While never hostile towards Josh, he is quick to list various gay-related stereotypes and nonsense statistics to Josh in reaction to his coming-out: “I’ve decided I’m fine with it. After all, it’s probably my fault. I didn’t play enough sports with you when you were kid.”, “A homosexual man is thirty-times more likely to get AIDS.”, or “Some fathers would punch you for this. I’m a pretty good dad.” (“French Toast”).
Similarly, the character of Aunty Peg (Judi Farr) is seemingly dead set against the mere idea of homosexuality or gender-fluidity at first. She questions the shape of Josh’s body, even asking about the size of his testicles at one point in order to find the answer to why her step-grandson is so effeminate. However, in what is perhaps the most heart-warming scene of the show (apparently inspired by a real moment from Thomas’ life), Peg speaks up in church after a priest gives a homophobic speech during a sermon and actually stands up for Josh: “This is my Josh. He is a homosexual. And I love him. Which is what God would want. And if it isn’t what God would want, then He or She can stick it!” (“Portuguese Custard Tarts”)
Love, Sex, and Relationships
Considering that Josh’s first ever sexual encounter with another man ends with him bleeding into that man’s mouth, it is not very hard to guess the overall theme of Josh’s love-life – awkwardness. In fact, all portrayals of love, sex, and relationships on the show can be summed up as awkward, honest, and painfully realistic. No relationship seems to last more than two seasons of the show, nearly every character in a relationship secretly resents their partner while not wanting to break up because they fear being single, the topic of divorce is stripped of its stigma, and “love” seems to be just a way to overcome loneliness.
That said, Please Like Me is by no means a loveless show. While during the first two seasons, Josh seems to over-idealise men by appreciating them on very superficial levels, he turns out to be quite the romantic after his current boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) manages to slowly peel away his layers of fake bravado, sarcasm, and bitterness. This leads to what is perhaps one of the most tastefully-shot yet realistic love scenes on contemporary television in episode “Eggplant”, when Josh and Arnold have sex for the first time in an empty warehouse under fairy lights. Of course, Josh does not forget to comment on the cheesiness of Arnold’s set-up, even teasingly breaking into Six Pence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” as they undress. The sex itself is portrayed in a frank and positive manner – complete with tearing of a condom wrapper and opening a bottle of lube on the camera – which is quite an achievement for a show that is aired on network television.
Generally speaking, all sexual encounters on Please Like Me are portrayed in this manner, though they are not as sweet as this one. In fact, the not-so-sweet sexual scenes, including dark angry sex between Tom (Thomas Ward) and his season two girlfriend Jenny (Charlotte Nicdao) or weird outdoor sex between Mum and a fellow patient from her psychiatric institution Stuart (Bob Franklin), can appear even more explicit. The show is also not shy about the topic of STDs. In his interview with Vanity Fair, Thomas admits that such things can become difficult with networks and producers: “We’ve got quite rigid censorship. We can’t show bums or boobs. But within that, I really try to get away with whatever we can without freaking out the censor.”
While relationships are certainly a fundamental part of the Please Like Me universe, friendship never takes backseat on the show. Although it may seem at first that Tom is nothing more than Josh’s brooding live-in side-kick, their mutual support and deep understanding of each other quickly overshadows any doubts about the importance of their relationship in relation to not only Josh’s character, but the show as whole.
This support and understanding already becomes prominent in the very first episode when Tom is driving Josh to the hospital to see his mother after her suicide attempt, which also happens to be the morning after Josh’s first sexual experience with a man. The light yet meaningful exchange of words between the two boys (quite clearly inspired by the real-life friendship between Thomas and Ward) is a prime example of how best friends can communicate on a “meta-level” while having a seemingly casual conversation on the surface. In fact, the way Tom’s childlike sulky nature resonates with Josh’s pragmatic yet caring personality can be considered the very backbone of Please Like Me. “Every party, we just end up standing alone together, not talking to other people. Why do we bother?” (“Ham”)
All portrayals of love, sex, and relationships on the show can be summed up as awkward, honest, and painfully realistic.
Similarly, although Claire (Caitlin Stasey) starts out in the position of a mere “plot-tool” when she forces Josh to face up to his homosexuality by breaking up with him, she soon becomes his other best friend and confidant. The whole trio then embarks on adventures to dance clubs, awkward dinner parties, and one truly unforgettable high-school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a manner that would put any other fictional trios, including J. K. Rowling’s Golden Trio, to shame.
Breaking of Taboos
After Claire returns from her brief stay in Berlin in season three, she is finally given more space in the script. Her abortion storyline is one of several crucial taboo-breaking moments on the show. In an interview with Time.com, Thomas admits that he was hesitant about including it in the recent season: “I have a few female friends who really wanted me to do an abortion storyline and were frustrated that it’s not on television more. I really wanted to do it, but I was scared because it wasn’t something I had experienced.”
When it comes to the show’s portrayal of women in general, Please Like Me offers way more nuance than Lena Dunham’s Girls, which is surprising considering both its creator and its lead is a white man. The character of Mae (Renee Lim), Dad’s girlfriend, in particular deserves recognition as an example of a well-characterised woman of colour who manages to break stereotypes about Asian women with a couple of well-aimed glares and several witty comebacks: “I am very sorry for speaking out of turn, sir. I was momentarily distracted by my uterus and forgot my manners.” (“Portuguese Custard Tarts”) She too gets her own storyline in season three when the authors decide to connect the topic of infidelity with the topic of sexual fetish by having Mae cheat on Dad with a stranger she meets on a pregnancy fetish website (thus killing a stereotype and a taboo with one stone).
Mental Health Issues
Another Please Like Me woman who is worth highlighting is the character of Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), whom Josh meets in Mum’s psychiatric institution. While she has not been yet fully developed as a character and the audience does not have much information about her life, she is a crucial part of what is perhaps the main topic of the entire show – mental health issues.
According to Thomas’ interview with Time.com, the most difficult part of writing about mentally ill characters is “rejecting the typical narrative of mental illness on television. His characters don’t magically get better or worse as the season progresses, and in fact, some of them are still dealing with the same struggles from a season or two ago.” This, again, is a testimony to the painfully realistic nature of Please Like Me.
Besides the “officially” mentally ill characters on the show (Hannah, Mum, Ginger, Arnold, and Stuart), the show is also peppered with allusions to various other mental health issues, which are not necessarily specified or diagnosed. Tom, for instance, can often be seen in situations that very much resemble someone suffering from depression. For example, he spends the entire second half of season two in bed or bathtub listening to sad songs. Of course, given the fact that Tom’s main character-traits are broodiness and sulkiness, it is difficult to determine where his “angsty teenage boy” persona ends and a possible mental illness begins.
Something similar can be observed when it comes to Josh himself, however it soon becomes clear that he is there to provide outsider’s point of view for the audience rather than being the subject of the topic of mental illness. Given that amongst the aforementioned people are Josh’s mother, his boyfriend, and his best friend, it soon becomes clear that he is going to have to not only deal with this predicament, but more importantly to learn how to accommodate his loved ones without triggering an episode or being constantly terrified they might hurt or kill themselves.
When it comes to the show’s portrayal of women in general, Please Like Me offers way more nuance than Lena Dunham’s Girls.
At the beginning of their relationship, Josh certainly does not know how to deal with Arnold’s anxiety, probably because of its irrational nature which he does not quite understand. In episode “Margherita”, Arnold suffers an anxiety attack on a beach which turns out to be partly Josh’s fault and which, for a while, breaks up their relationship. Josh clearly manages to do some research after this occurs, though. Only one season later, he manages to talk Arnold down from an anxiety attack in the confined space of a ferris wheel capsule in “Champagne” by having him calculate the chance of Josh meeting someone, falling in love with that person, and having that person love him back – which both distracts Arnold from his attack and reminds him of how much Josh cares about him.
In a similar manner, Josh learns to accommodate his mother, who after two unsuccessful attempts at taking her own life in season one moves to a private psychiatric clinic where she struggles to come to terms with her bipolar disorder. After an episode in which her roommate Ginger kills herself in their room, Josh takes Mum on a hike to the Australian outdoors to help her cope with her death in “Scroggin”, which is to this day the most critically acclaimed episode of the show (having won several AACTA Awards, Australian Writers’ Guild Award, and Australian Directors’ Guild Award). The overall fusion of palpable heaviness attached to the topic of mental illness and the incredible lightness of the often improper humour shown in this episode is then what gives the entire show its typical bittersweet tone that seems to resonate so well with millennials.
Contemporary Study of (Australian) Society
Ultimately, Please Like Me excels at portraying members of minorities to be just as “imperfect” as anyone else in relation to socio-political correctness; queer people can be racist, people of colour can be ableist (ableism: discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities) and/or homophobic, and mentally ill people can be all of the above. Whether they can get away with it is another story, naturally. However, all of this certainly helps keep the show contemporary, especially to all the other millennials who are too at this time struggling with the same mistakes, questions, and decisions as Josh. Additionally, the above-average frequency of pop culture references in the show’s dialogue keeps the stories fresh – a trick which works for many shows currently appearing on the more prolific American television, including the CW’s musical show Crazy Ex Girlfriend, or the recently-revived cult show Gilmore Girls. Additionally, they give the show more of a global feel rather than specifically Australian feel, which makes it appear more timeless while at the same time representing the millennial view of society.
That said, Please Like Me is certainly not a show just for millennials. Whether the audience enjoys Arnold singing “Chandelier” to Dad, the whole gang belting out “Someone Like You” by Adele at the dinner table before they eat Adele the rooster, Arnold apologising to Josh by re-enacting a scene from Love, Actually, or Josh singing and dancing to “I’ll Be Fine” by Clairy Browne & The Bangin’ Rackettes while cooking a meal at the beginning of each episode, there is something for everyone. More importantly, despite the lyrics of the title song, as long as Please Like Me remains on the air, Josh will most certainly not be fine. And that is just as well since it means that the show will have more stories to tell for a long time to come.
Re:Views Verdict: 95%
Name: Please Like Me (2013–present)
Running time: 6 x 28mins (s1); 10 x 25 mins (s2); 10 x 25 mins (s3)*
Starring: Josh Thomas, Thomas Ward, Caitlin Stasey, Debra Lawrance, David Roberts, Renee Lim, Keegan Joyce, Wade Briggs
Available on ABC Television, DVD, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix worldwide
*season 4 premiered in November 2016