In a recent episode of Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me, the bouncy titles run over three little scenarios: Josh cooks dinner for his mate Tom and his boyfriend Arnold; his Mum cooks for her new housemate Hannah; and his Dad cooks for his wife, Mae. The three of them stir, sip wine and dance daggily around their kitchens in a neat metaphor for this season’s fantastic, cohesive new trajectory.
Please Like Me has always felt like the story of Josh’s bid to escape his parents – a fragile, dependent mother and a father in perpetual mid-life crisis – into a new urban family of his own creation (with Tom, Josh’s ex-girlfriend Claire, and a host of Josh’s boyfriends and would-be lovers). These two ‘families’ were often disparate parts of a clever but uneven show.
Now, in its third season, Please Like Me just seems to be gelling. Josh’s two families have woven together in a way that feels more comfortable, even as the show enters uncomfortable territory – serious mental health issues, marital discord and the persistent confusion of growing up. This rambling, unusual unit forms the backbone of a series that is now unwaveringly impressive.
It’s fitting that family is the focus of Please Like Me, because it’s hard to think of an Aussie show that isn’t about family. Workplace comedies, romantic dramas, sci-fi frolics: the question that lingers over so many Australian series is what, exactly, makes a group a family.
Utopia, Working Dog’s comedy about absurd bureaucracy in a government office, plays on the idea of work as family. Like The Office before it, Utopia places a few ‘normals’ in an office of kooks and tells the story of family dysfunction. It’s the kind of dysfunction that Thomas’s Please Like Me revels in. Utopia could be a companion piece to The Moodys, another Aussie comedy about family dysfunction through the eyes of an everyman.
As in Please Like Me, dramas Offspring and Love My Way are centred on rambling blended families, and each series interrogates what keeps these groups together in times of hardship. In Love My Way, tragedy strikes at the centre of an unconventional family unit. How can a family function, the series wonders, when the key piece is missing? In these shows, blended and broken has replaced tidy and nuclear as the new normal.
Curating a new family as a method for coming of age, as Josh does in Please Like Me, is also fertile territory in Australian teen TV. In Ready For This, a new series about five indigenous teenagers sharing a Sydney boarding house, the challenge of parting from family to seek the future pushes the kids to make a new home together. In ABC3’s sci-fi series Nowhere Boys, four teenagers are sucked into an alternate universe – one where they were never born. The boys form a surrogate brotherhood to ensure their survival, but the horrifying what if is: what if . . . your family could live without you?
What makes a family, and how to keep it together, are essential questions in most Australian television series, and Please Like Me is no exception.
The family unit informs every little moment on Please Like Me. To take Dad’s mind off his marital problems, and to ease some of Arnold’s anxiety about coming out to his conservative parents, Josh orchestrates a practice coming out between Arnold and Dad (with Tom on the piano), which morphs into a brilliantly weird and intimate rendition of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’. Even the play-acting of ‘family’ reveals the true bond in this hodgepodge group – all of them clustered around Josh, their unlikely patriarch.
In ‘Simple Carbohydrates’, Please Like Me’s best episode yet, Thomas isolates every building block in Josh’s composite family. Mum and Hannah are tender and awkward, like a new couple getting their bearings. When Mum suggests an outing, disaster turns to solidarity: Mum pats Hannah’s back while she throws up outside a bar. The easy patter between Tom and Josh situates them in comfortable coupledom; Tom whinges while Josh baits him, and Arnold and Claire (via Skype) slot into the banter nicely. They are an odd, familiar little unit. Then there’s poor old Dad and Mae, a couple on shaky ground. When Dad points out, during their quiet spaghetti dinner, that Mae is adding a lot of cheese, she snaps, ‘Every time we have pasta you say, “That’s a lot of cheese”. I know it’s a lot of cheese, but it’s how much cheese I like. So, please, take a mental note that I like a lot of cheese, so we don’t have to talk about it again.’
It’s significant that most of the important moments in Please Like Me happen at the kitchen table – the metaphorical centre of the family unit. This is where Mae tells Dad a terrible secret; it’s where Hannah and Mum confess to more struggles with their mental health. Josh and Arnold have their first real conversation at the kitchen table (or, rather, under it) during a birthday party.
In a television landscape dominated by families, the knitting together of Josh’s support network runs parallel to Please Like Me’s rapid ascension in audience and critical esteem. It’s solidified the third season; now the show is sharper, smoother and surer of itself.
If Please Like Me is a coming-of-age story, the entrance to adulthood is signalled by the fusing together of Josh’s two families. As Josh grows up, he gathers his kin around him. The result is a deeper well of rich and affecting storytelling; we plunge in and emerge twenty-five minutes later, gasping for air.