Please Like Me has just begun its third series on ABC2 in Australia and Pivot in the US, and it looks to be as tender, sharp, wry, and thoughtful as the programme’s initial run. Deemed ‘too gay’ for ABC, Please Like Me hasn’t gotten nearly the critical attention it deserves, and I hope that it develops into a sleeper hit, with a slow burn and an eventual explosion into the pop culture landscape. While at first glance it might look like a slew of other Millennial-targeted shows (Girls, etc), there’s a breadth and depth that’s not apparent among many of its counterparts.
Developed from a comedy routine Josh Thomas originally performed in his early twenties, Please Like Me revolves around a young gay man — Josh Thomas starring, effectively, as himself — and his group of friends. It’s a coming of age tale for a generation that doesn’t really start coming of age until its twenties, when people begin to leave the home and strike out on their own. It’s also a story about coming into your own, and finding your place in a world that can’t always decide what to do with you.
Pitched as a drama, Please Like Me is the best sort of drama, one with rich, wry humour and self-awareness that doesn’t become too absorbed in itself. Along the way, it carries some sharp criticism designed to make both characters and viewers uncomfortable — ‘are you racist?’ a character challenges in the season three premiere when another becomes convinced that ‘they’ won’t ensure that his pho is vegetarian. ‘I love Asians,’ he responds, just as the waitstaff return to the table, silently unloading the food.
In an interview with The Guardian, Thomas noted that creating a show pivoted to the Australian experience was a road that would end nowhere very quickly, thanks to the nation’s relatively small population — notably, pitifully few Australian programmes make their way into the larger pop culture landscape, even though many are quite excellent. With Please Like Me, he reached a balance point, looking for the universality of experiences while infusing the setting with a deep Australian flavour — young men talk about being lonely, video chat with friends, negotiate with parents, and these are all things that are familiar to many viewers.
The sexuality on Please Like Me is perhaps one of the more striking elements on the show. It was evidently too much for the family types at ABC, which shunted it off to the more youth-orientated ABC2, apparently better suited to deal with the horrors of gay sex, and Pivot in the US clearly picked up the show at least in part because of the orientation of the leads. The sex of Please Like Me captures the slightly glittering, awkward, gawkiness of sex in the real world — nervous chatter, laughter, repositioning, negotiating, lube. It’s something mirrored by the show at large, which retains a deep authenticity by virtue of the fact that the actors allow themselves a wider and more intimate dramatic range without hamming or chewing scenery.
Edgy nervousness and jumpy talking is perhaps one of my favourite elements of the programme, and it’s something Thomas seems to share with his real life identity, judging from his nervy interviews with the media. He seems almost surprised by the success of the show, by journalists interested in talking with him, and he bounces anxiously from subject to subject, chattering, edging around corners. He writes that brilliantly into his own characters and the text — instead of being sleek and self-assured, they share much of the self-deprecating anxiousness that characterises the Millennial generation as a whole.
In particular, Please Like Me accomplishes the important victory that many of its US counterparts seem to have trouble grasping: It’s unafraid to let characters develop. Programmes in the US seem to enjoy leaving characters in a perennial state of self-involved awfulness, sort of playing on the idea of awful characters as intriguing people, something that gets old very quickly. Antiheroes can be interesting, but only if they move over time. Josh does so, becoming more mature, complex, and thoughtful over the course of the programme, and not necessarily in a linear way; like real people, he slips back, steps forward, grows in some areas of his life but not others, challenges himself and sometimes fails.
Millennials are often accused of being a selfish and coddled generation, despite the fact that many are working with considerable disadvantages, including a global economic crisis, oppressive anti-terrorism laws, and complex social factors. Some do emerge from their parents’ homes with considerable baggage, but others are more complicated people — like Josh — and they’re still developing within the context of themselves and their own lives. To see themselves mirrored in text is important, especially in the case of gay men, who remain somewhat elusive on television. Something about gay sexuality deeply troubles and upsets viewers and networks alike, who are willing to tolerate pretty lesbians who perform for the camera, but not raw gay sexuality — even men kissing seems to make people uneasy. Please Like Me takes on these attitudes without making itself preachy; it’s just presenting the lives of gay men, and those lives, shockingly, include making out and making love and so much more.
There is something charming, truthful, and authentic about Please Like Me that makes it tremendously appealing, even if it is often a quiet, mellow programme. It illustrates that good television doesn’t have to be aggressively plot driven every single episode, and that in fact taking time to develop characters and explore their lives can yield rich, entertaining results. I’d like to see Please Like Me getting more attention.