In the first episode of the terrific “Please Like Me”, season one, twenty-year-old Josh (Josh Thomas, playing a younger version of himself) orders an eighteen dollar sundae, only to have his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) break up with him before the first bite. She explains that it’s because he’s probably gay. Minutes later he meets the ridiculously pretty and kind Geoffrey (Wade Briggs), the co-worker of his roommate Tom (Thomas Ward), who invites himself over for dinner and into Josh’s bed. This may sound like fodder for a sitcom, but Australian comedian Thomas, who penned all six perfectly arced episodes of the series, is an expert at finding believable character motivation to drive the plot.
The awkward, pear-shaped Josh, who bemoans that puberty didn’t do him justice, can’t believe his good fortune in landing Geoffrey: “At least if they’re mediocre looking, I can appreciate why their standards are so low, but when they’re that pretty, I’m just like ‘ugh, what are you hiding?’”. This proves prophetic; we slowly learn that Geoffrey simply has no sense of boundaries.
Told from Josh’s perspective, this dramedy sidesteps the potential drama of coming out – Thomas’s own experience was uneventful – and focuses on Josh navigating the complicated business of friendship and romance while taking care of his needy, divorced parents. The morning after Josh’s first encounter with Geoffrey, he discovers his mother (Debra Lawrence) took “quite a lot of Panadol and drank half a bottle of Bailey’s”, in a voicemail from his dad (David Roberts), whose constant phone interruptions punctuate the show’s dramatic moments. Josh handles the situation with surprising calm – it’s not ambivalence, but a perfected coping mechanism – and great wit without being insensitive: when his mother’s nurse asks if she still has a headache, Josh insists that “if you have a headache in the next couple of weeks, I think you should really be calling [Panadol’s] customer complaint line”.
Josh’s father is too emotionally immature to be of any help, obsessing pointlessly over how he must be to blame, so much that even his level-headed new girlfriend Mae (Renee Lim), sarcastically sighs “if you break up with someone, what is the point in living? You might as well end it.” It falls to Josh to move back in with his mother, something he candidly and honestly worries he’s not up to: “I can’t do caring. I don’t even care for myself. I never floss.”
Just as Josh is an expert at breaking the tension in his life with self-deprecating wit, the show, too, moves effortlessly from dark drama to laugh-out-loud scenes, slowly enough to keep it emotional, but without lingering for melodrama. There is fantastic editing here, too, when lingering on the awkward moments for comedy just enough to maximize the laughs, like Josh’s insistence on changing into his pyjamas behind his creaky door that keeps swinging open, before hopping into bed with Geoffrey.Throughout everything, the show maintains a certain buoyancy; no matter what, each episode begins with Josh cooking up a gourmet dish, while dancing to the earworm theme song, “I’ll Be Fine”, and we get the sense that he’s taking everything in stride, capable of handling it all. The camera will often follow Josh as he takes a beat to himself to process things and collect himself, before returning to company.
The other characters that inhabit Josh’s world are equally well-drawn, helped in large part by Matthew Saville’s superb directing: we often get all the actors in a scene in frame, which gives us a lot of information about every relationship, and makes rewatches rewarding. Josh lives with his best friend Tom, who avoids conflict at all costs, and can’t manage to break up with his insufferable girlfriend; when he finally does, Josh and Claire, still a staple in his life, exchange an amused and knowing glance, as they’ve been waiting patiently for this moment for a long time. Geoffrey is a considerate friend but a frustratingly high maintenance boyfriend. Even Josh’s helpless parents, who can barely take care of themselves, prove to be well-meaning: there’s surprisingly little emotional blackmail or guilt involved.
“Please Like Me” has been compared favourably to “Girls”, and it is just as good, if not better. But aside from also being a thirty-minute dramedy written by a Millennial for Millennials, with incredibly quotable one-liners, there are few similarities. The world of “Please Like Me” is populated with straightforward characters who are honest with each other and themselves. They resemble people you know rather than self-absorbed navel-gazers you hope to never meet. Although the television network Pivot, which is producing the show in the US, may be hanging its entire reputation on the show — giving it a similar ‘voice of a generation’ quality that ‘Girls’ was often incompetently labelled as — its aspiration is just to tell honest stories about twenty-somethings with humour, and it does so fabulously.
All episodes are now available on iTunes in the US for $4.99 (HD) or $3.99 (SD). The first episode, “Rhubarb and Custard” is available on YouTube.