What I'm Watching Right Now: 'Please Like Me'
If you’ve already bingewatched every single critically acclaimed show out there, and you’re wondering what to watch next, TV critic Melissa Maerz has a few suggestions. Her column, “What I’m Watching Now,” is devoted to the best underhyped series on television (or Amazon, or Netflix, or whatever iDevice you’re using), whether they’re just premiering or have been lingering on your friends’ season pass queues for years.
This fall’s best new comedy might not be on your television—yet. It’s called Please Like Me, and it premiered last month on Pivot, a new network geared toward Millennials that broadcasts to 40 million homes across the country. (Click here to find out if it’s available in yours. Pivot will marathon all six episodes on Saturday, October 5 from noon to 4:30pm ET, and single episodes will begin airing weekly that day at 9pm ET.) Of course, if you’re a good Millennial, you’ve already watched it on iTunes and tweeted about how you’re now obsessed with its very charming, self-deprecating writer/producer/star, Josh Thomas, a muss-haired, bow-tied, 26-year-old who admits in the show that he looks “like a 50-year-old baby.”
If you’ve never heard of Please Like Me, which originally aired in Thomas’s native Australia, Pivot President Evan Shapiro has helpfully described it as “a coming-out quarter-life-crisis suicide comedy” that’s just like Girls—“if Girls had a soul.” Sure, like Girls creator Lena Dunham, Thomas plays on a semi-fictionalized version of himself. “Josh” was inspired by a stand-up routine he came up with at age 20, three years after killing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, right around the time he stopped fooling around with women and fell for a man who may or may not have been prettier than he is. Thomas’s best friend Thomas Ward plays Josh’s best friend “Tom,” and his real-life cavoodle, John, appears as his dog. (The pet names here are hilariously ill-advised. There’s also a rabbit named Shaniqua.) But while PLM captures its creator’s life well, along with twentysomething life in general, the Girls comparison still seems slightly unfair. Thomas recently told EW that PLM had already been shot when Lena Dunham’s breakthrough premiered, and judging by his well-intentioned but slightly myopic characters, who are always trying (and often failing) to do the right thing, he has more in common with Mike White, whose bittersweet tribute to good people behaving badly, Enlightened, will be sorely missed.
PLM begins with Josh getting dumped by his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) because, she puts it, “I kind of feel like we’ve drifted, you know? Also, you’re gay.” What follows as Josh explores his new life as a single, “out” man will be familiar to anyone born after 1980. But it still feels like a fresh take on this generation, one that was actually created by one of its own members, instead of relying on some thirtysomething writer to make assumptions about the “Millennial voice.” Clumsy hookups are followed by first dates, instead of the reverse. Young people treat their mothers like best friends instead of parents, only to freak out when that relationship gets a little too friendly. (When Josh offers to take his mom’s photo for her online dating site, she insists, “Take it with the boobs out!”) Life-changing news is tossed off by text message, while intimate conversations are formatted like silly party games, such as Josh’s favorite, “What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to your genitals?”
Even Josh’s coming out story feels original, told in a no-big-deal way that’s rarely seen on TV. When his Abercrombie-model-like boyfriend, Geoffrey (Wade Briggs), asks if he has told his family that he’s gay, Josh sighs, “Coming out, to me, just seems so ’90s… I just can’t be bothered.” He and Geoffrey get kicked out of a football game for yelling “faggot!” at the players. At one point, Josh admits that he misses vaginas (“[They’re] so nifty!”) and Claire initially wants to keep hanging out with Josh as if they were still romantically involved, even though she knows that he’s dating men. Sexuality doesn’t define these characters’ identities like it did during the ’90s. Whether or not that counts as progress is hard to say, but the fact that it doesn’t have to is encouraging. TV portrayals of guys like Josh have come a long way: now, they’re not much different from straight guys or women—and, certainly, they’re no less messed up.
Of course, their parents aren’t faring much better, either. One of the best things about PLM is that it totally refutes the idea that Millennials (and the TV shows created by them) are narcissistic, overly obsessed with their own plight as the entitled children of self-esteem-boosting Boomers, and more adept at “liking” things on Facebook than loving flesh-and-blood human beings. Josh devotes much of his life to caring for his very depressed mother, Rose (Debra Lawrance), who’s splitting with her husband (David Roberts) and trying to soldier on after a suicide attempt, with help from her son and her Jesus-worshipping, hard-liquor-loving Aunty Peg (Judi Farr, who is clearly relishing every last cocktail refill in this fiery-old-lady role). This too-close-for-comfort relationship should ring true to many post-grads who had to move back home after college and never stopped acting like somebody’s son, but the consequences of the narrowing generation gap between kids and their parents are also clear here: Josh is sometimes forced to play the parent to his mom. For that reason, Thomas’ jokes about Rose’s struggle never feel mean-spirited or cynical. If anything, the dark humor comes from a place of empathy. When Josh takes Mum to an appointment with a psychologist, she’s ashamed. “No one’s gonna see you, mom,” Josh promises. “And if they do see you, they’re probably mental, too, so that’s nice!”
Much of the show’s appeal lies in its perfect balance of emotional depth and sharp, biting wit. The characters are so endlessly quotable that Aunty Peg’s quips often pop up on Tumblr. I spent a full day emailing my favorite bits of dialogue back and forth with a coworker, including this one from Rose and Aunty Peg, respectively: “I can’t drink. I’m depressed.” “Well how is someone supposed to stop being depressed if you can’t drink?” And this one from Geoffrey and Josh, while they’re attempting to spoon in bed: “Do you prefer big spoon or little spoon?” “I don’t really get the big spoon/little spoon type of thing. Surely, they’d be the same size spoons. Different size spoons don’t fit together like this!” The banter saves some genuinely poignant scenes from getting too sappy, but it’s also a touching look at how a generation raised on irony deals with actual feelings. At one point, Josh admits that he wants to cry, but he doesn’t know how. Tom tells him that he felt the same way at a funeral once. “I sort of faked the crying face,” he says, “and then it became real.” The advice is sad and funny and a little disturbing, all at once, much like the rest of the show.
PLM has just been picked up for a second season. And the idea that flawed guys like Josh don’t have to be particularly “likeable” in order to be loved is catching on. The show has created a site where fans make videos sharing the reasons they fear people won’t like them. (Video titles include “I’m a Ginger,” “I Suffer from Depression,” and “I Have ADD.”) For a guy who’s been appointed as a voice of his generation, Thomas has created something that intentionally bucks against many Millennial stereotypes—or maybe just tweaks them for the greater good. He uses sarcasm to deliver earnest messages, and although his story is all about himself, the fact that he’s sharing it feels quite generous, considering all the fans who can relate. This is a show about trying to develop real connections with others, and it’s often quite moving. Watch it now, while it’s just as young and awkward and full of potential as the audience it’s intended for.