Nature’s most perfect Australian, Josh Thomas, created and aired the first season of “Please Like Me” on Pivot in early 2013, based on his standup routine of the same name: A six-episode whirlwind tour through sexual identity, awkwardness both relatable and occasionally painful, self-effacing discovery and complicated family relationships.
In the modern landscape of mournful half-hour dramedies, the show created — and maintains — a unique and meaningful approach to tragedy, awkwardness and discomfort: Where a regular sitcom might either whitewash or caricature family drama — mental illness is a recurring theme, whittled down to its hassles and complications and drudgery in a particularly insightful and groundbreaking way — “Please Like Me” proceeds from a compassionate and sensible viewpoint that every family contains its tragedies, difficulties and complications.
Where “Girls” — to which it’s often compared — portrays its characters’ hiccups in stability as one-time aberrations (the Q-Tip in the ear; the ad hoc Kanye West performance), “Please Like Me” keeps an unflinchingly kind, if not altogether nice, lens on exactly those aspects of life and personality that are the most relatable … and least discussed. Since that first year, two ten-episode sequels have aired the last two autumns, and recently a fourth was announced, beginning Nov. 11.
The lead, Josh, is played by the creator and writer as a touchy, flighty, inscrutable and charming force of nature, wickedly cerebral — and so convinced of his own powerlessness and insignificance that every move he makes shakes the Earth beneath our feet. It’s a Gemini thing, but it’s an everybody thing, too: We don’t feel heard, or effective, no matter how many power moves we make or situations we rig in our own favor — the feeling is so convincing that no amount of wreckage, fallout or debris in our wake can convince us otherwise.
Season 3 also brings back the show’s secret weapon, ex-girlfriend Claire (“Reign’s” delightful Kenna, Caitlin Stasey), after far too long overseas: Moving Claire back into Josh’s life and home is the single smartest move the show could make, as her grounded and pragmatic humor balances out a great deal of Josh and his circle’s more outrageous decisions. If Josh is the person we’re afraid we might be, Claire is increasingly the adult we wish to become.
But Claire’s return is also part of another canny aspect of the show: Its extremely linear approach to Josh’s development as a fully functioning, romantic gay man. Season 1 begins with a breakup: Claire has decided that Josh is gay and, with regret, can no longer be with him. Awkwardness abounds, as Claire tries to be a supportive friend while the ground shifts under his feet, while also dealing with the resentment and aftershocks of that situation. Josh’s first relationship, with the near-perfect Geoffrey, ends in total self-sabotage, and he retreats into dealing with family dysfunction.
In Season 2, Josh’s coming-out drama sticks to the script: A not-entirely-straight roommate depends on his emotional support and flattery, even as Josh is discovering wounded bird Arnold, who will eventually become the “Mr. Big” of the piece: A soulmate and One True Love who is also eternally in the wrong place at the wrong time. While Josh would like to believe that Arnold is the fragile one, it’s the kind of projection that we all do when faced with a truly life-changing romance, and by season’s end Josh and Arnold have settled into a mutually protective, mutually indulgent ceasefire.
Season 3 begins with new stages in Josh’s life both professionally — a coffee cart, set against Melbourne’s green spaces, becomes a hub for drama — and romantically, as his attempts to support Arnold in regaining his self-esteem and functionality nearly backfire. An early rooftop date leads to some of the most tenderly and realistically depicted sex since HBO’s “Looking,” but with Arnold’s newfound strength comes some unwelcome independence, and Josh is left in a curious limbo, having rendered himself out of the equation by accidentally helping Arnold transition into adulthood.
It’s a bizarre — and utterly familiar — movement in the story, that leads to a few more classic Josh dating milestones: Attempting a Grindr hookup, he accidentally ends up spending the weekend with his date and eventually becoming his emergency contact; confronted by past lovers in a seemingly endless cascade of humiliating circumstances, he throws down at a family Christmas party in such a violently ugly way it feels like the ultimate test of our affection.
While the mysteries of Josh — his tiny victories, and massacres — are a mesmerizing enough spectacle to support the show, the rest of the ensemble gets worthy work to do this season: A sign of the show’s maturation is how much it trusts these characters even without Josh on hand to offer comment: Josh’s roommate and best friend Tom (played by real-life best friend Thomas Ward) gets a worthy storyline this season, after two years of bordering-on-misogyny drama with crazy ex Niamh (Nikita Leigh-Pritchard), and Cottier is brilliant as the harmlessly selfish Patrick.
“Home & Away’s” Debra Lawrance, as Josh’s mom Rose, finds a new world outside her Season 2 hospitalization with Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose no-nonsense approach to her own troubles adds a bracingly real harmony to the orchestration. David Roberts and Renee Lim, as Josh’s father and stepmother, spend the season finding their place in the story, for the first time as more than an off-hand punchline or weird sour note — which is, perhaps, Season 3’s greatest trick, moving Josh’s dad Alan from hapless patriarch to significant and lovable individual, right as Josh is finally growing up enough to see him as a person.
There is also a more confident approach to the overall seasonal arc, as elements introduced subtly in early scenes — a new pet chicken named Adele, a piñata full of secrets, a miniature city made of cardboard — come quietly over time to symbolize and eventually effect huge emotional consequences. And while Josh’s attraction to extremely messed-up people may be factory original, never fully transcended, the amount of time spent talking and worrying about it and connecting it to his family history is a definite sign of where the fourth season may take us.
We want Josh to be happy — the title’s eternal question is answered immediately — but we also want Josh to be challenged. He’s simply too charmed, too good at self-protection, too immune to vulnerability, to ever get anywhere without the calamities that constantly befall him. But with the show’s savvy reminders that 99 percent of those calamities are self-inflicted, and most times semi-consciously, what we get instead is a front-row seat at one man’s battle to find, and keep, the best parts of himself.
“Please Like Me” Seasons 1-3 are available on Hulu; a fourth season has been commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.