Twenty-year-old Josh's (Josh Thomas) world explodes twice in the Please Like Me pilot: first when he realizes he's gay, and again when his bipolar mother, Rose (Debra Lawrance), attempts suicide. Josh takes both revelations in stride, though he dreads having to explain to his mom, whom he'll be living with and caring for, why his ex-girlfriend broke up with him. "I just can't be bothered," he whines. "Coming out, to me, just seems so '90s, you know? They've seen me in school musicals. Do we really need a discussion?"
This Aussie comedy's sensitive but blasé take on gay life is just one of the elements that make it one of the freshest shows currently on the air — no mean feat during an era like ours, when TV is hurtling ahead faster than ever. Kind, observant and naturalistically hilarious, the series — which returns for its third season this Friday at 10 p.m. on the Pivot cable network — is also a deeply resonant portrait of stumbling toward adulthood and dealing with mental illness in the family.
The semi-autobiographical show is the brainchild of Thomas, a comic wunderkind who could be Australia's answer to Lena Dunham. Like the Girls creator, Thomas was just 26 when his comedy debuted, and he draws upon an earlier phase in the writer's life for its depiction of youthful confusion. Like Dunham, Thomas looks more like a regular person than an actor nipped, tucked and whittled down for mass consumption. His thin blond hair is always too long; his wide, long nose looks lifted out of an illustration in a Roald Dahl book; and his voice catches on a squeak when his character gets excited, as if he were still going through puberty in his twenties. As the fictional Josh, he frequently avoids eye contact and seems afraid to remove his hands from his pockets. He is, in other words, charmingly and recognizably human.
Once upon a halcyon time, before many of us lost faith that the economy would ever be righted again, you could afford for your friends to be your family. Shows like Friends and Sex and the City offered the fantasy that you could choose your family members, the way you'd pick up a guy at the coffee shop or a shoe from a Fifth Avenue boutique. Josh's situation is much more complicated and, for the third of American millennials who live with their parents, much more relatable. He's got a core group of pals, including his straight best friend, Tom (Thomas Ward), but he knows that his mom is emotionally (and, for a brief while, medically) dependent on him in the same way that he's financially dependent on his wealthy, divorced dad (David Roberts).
In a smart touch, Josh's personality and sense of humor change subtly depending on whether he's with his friends or his family. The only person who bridges the gap is his dad's much younger girlfriend (Renee Lim), a Thai mistress of insults who congratulates Josh on his maybe-boyfriend Arnold's (Keegan Joyce) declaration of love in the third-season premiere: "He said it first! You're the winner!"
Josh is ostensibly in his fifth year of college, but we never see him in school, let alone cracking a book. The show revolves around Josh and Tom's love lives — in the third season, Josh courts Arnold, who has been institutionalized on and off for his anxiety disorder — and Josh's mother's struggles to cope with depression and loneliness, which the show depicts with seriousness but without ever becoming glum or pedantic.
The highlight of the story lines about mental health (and of the second season) is a bottle episode called "Scroggin," in which Josh and his mother go camping after a friend of Rose's commits suicide. This rare and thoughtful half-hour includes a conversation about whether Josh is angry that Rose tried to kill herself (he explains very graciously why he isn't). In a later scene, Rose contemplates going off her medication: She doesn't want to feel that same just-thereness whether she's at a wedding or a funeral. But Rose's anhedonic roommate, Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), touchingly argues why their drugged-out emotional stoniness is preferable to the alternative while describing how painful it is to know that her brain won't work out without medical intervention. It's an extraordinarily compassionate depiction of living with mental illness, particularly in its elucidation of the unique pain and shame that accompany psychiatric afflictions.
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But Please Like Me maintains a largely breezy tone by focusing on Josh, Tom and their friends' efforts to figure out how to live life. "I think I love [Arnold], but I don't know what love is," proclaims Josh, his brain lagging behind his heart. "I should be the foremost expert on what's good for me, but I'm not," cries pixie-ish Ella (Emily Barclay), a new love interest for sad-sack Tom, whom he meets the night he literally trips while on MDMA and breaks his arm. The most promising of the story lines introduced in the first four episodes of the new season, though, is the breakup between Josh's dad and his girlfriend, who now have a baby daughter together.
"[I'm] just not sure how much happiness we deserve," Josh says casually in a not-all-that-existential-for-him mood. "Not much," replies his friend. Perhaps it's the American in me, but it's quietly exhilarating to watch him finally try to be happy this season, especially as he nurses Arnold through his panic attacks and encourages his sickly lover to come out to his overprotective mother and homophobic father. (As with so many scenes on the show, the moment is wry, awkward and tender.)
But most encouraging is Josh's new job as the owner of a coffee-and-sweets cart at the park. The opening credits generally feature a Food Network-worthy montage of Josh making an elaborate meal or dessert, and each episode is named after a dish. It's a perfect distillation of who Josh is: effeminate, creative, generationally obsessed with food, self-nurturing after growing up with a mother who couldn't be there for him. He's got enough wherewithal to make toffees and lollies to sell to customers. Whether he can finally mature enough to share a more substantial part of himself with others remains to be seen, but it's impossible not to root for him.
The first two seasons of Please Like Me are available to stream on Hulu and to buy on Amazon. Given the serialized nature of the show, starting from the pilot is highly recommended.