TV

How ‘Please Like Me’ Embraced The Sadness Of The Sitcom And Became The Best Show On TV

This season was basically Sad 'Friends' (and that's exactly why it was great).

Over the last few months especially, Please Like Me has quietly transformed itself into the best show on television. In what is arguably TV’s most explosively creative era, it’s a little show from a young Queensland-born comedian that’s proved to be the most original, authentic and just plain excellent thing going to air (here or anywhere else).

Go on. Fight me on it.

The show’s success can be credited to many different things. There’s its consistent voice — a careful balance of deadpan wit and heartfelt humanism — thanks to the creative team of Thomas (who’s written or co-written every episode) and director Matthew Saville (who’s directed every episode except this season’s ‘Natural Spring Water’, for which Thomas got in the director’s chair). There’s also the fact this is a comedy unafraid to tackle issues like abortion, mental health and STDs in its storylines gracefully, without ever threatening to topple over into a Very Special Episode. Hell, a decade ago, who could’ve imagined an Aussie TV show featuring a gay sex scene as sweet, tender, and most importantly real as in Please Like Me’s third season premiere?

While the show’s content might be pushing some (increasingly obsolete) boundaries, its style is pretty consistent with its contemporaries. For the most part, Please Like Me follows the modern dramedy model used in Girls, Louie and Master of None; it discusses serious issues in a serialised, comedic context. But it’s the show’s surprising debt to more traditional sitcoms — multi-camera comedies with laugh tracks and one-liners — that truly sets Please Like Me apart from the rest.

Your Favourite Comedies Are A Bit Of A Downer

The classic sitcom model is all about stability and familiarity. Sitting down with your favourite show is like sitting down with a group of friends and shooting the shit, whether it’s at Jerry’s apartment, Cheers, the Greendale study room, or Central Perk.

Please Like Me gets that. Almost every episode this season has spent the majority of its runtime at Josh’s house. There’s the occasional excursion — an awkward visit to see Arnold’s parents, an MDMA-fuelled night on the town — but when I think of the show, I think of the cast sprawled over couches or beds, confessing secrets, telling jokes and generally just enjoying each other’s company. They’re creating their own little world — at one point this season they did this literally, when they constructed a cardboard city for John (Josh’s dog) to destroy. But what distinguishes Please Like Me’s scenes of idle hanging out from their sitcom predecessors is how the show acknowledges that this kind of stasis, while reassuring to audiences, has at its core a deep well of sadness.

On your average sitcom, everyone’s life essentially operates in a kind of holding pattern — it’s the same twenty-something friends, same city, same jokes. Outside of dalliances between the main cast members, relationships never last very long (guest stars tend to only hang around for a few episodes). Opportunities for real change — promotions, travel and personal growth — are generally squandered with characters’ success secondary to their comedic chemistry. It might be comfortable to tune in to, but the idea of living a life implacably tethered to the same group of people in the same place is, well, kinda depressing.

Modern sitcoms don’t necessarily subscribe to this formula. Parks and Recreation, for example, dramatically changed up its status quo every season or so (most dramatically in its final seasons, but even early in its run as it took its main character out of the titular parks department and into the city council). But Please Like Me has kept things reasonably consistent since its first season. As an actor, Josh has tamped down his manic energy to settle in as the straight man to his co-stars, but as a character he’s still drifting through life without purpose. He’s a rock of support to his friends and family, but is seemingly lacking in personal ambition; it’s not particularly clear if he has a path in mind for his future beyond staffing a coffee cart, and the same is true of his friends.

The sadness inherent to this stasis is integral, not incidental, to why the show works so well.

The One Where Nothing Ever Really Changes

For most of us, everyday life runs at a fairly mundane pace — a sequence of variations on the same thing, over and over again — and Please Like Me‘s third season completely nailed this.

Continuing to be a bit of a fuckup, Josh’s flatmate Tom (Thomas Ward) has a disappointing sexual encounter with his boss, he meets a girl and immediately falls over breaking his arm, and when he does find himself in a stable relationship he contracts chlamydia (for a second time). He then goes to extraordinary lengths to secretly dose his girlfriend (Emily Barclay) with the appropriate treatment, since he’d first lied to her about having a sexual health check. Meanwhile Josh’s boyfriend, Arnold (Keegan Joyce), is still trapped by his dad’s homophobic expectations and his own anxiety; growth, for him, is manifested in small rebellions like running away from a shopping trolley.

Many of these are classic sitcom shenanigans, sure, but it’s also all treated with a sense of authenticity. Arnold struggles constantly with his mental health. Tom regularly acknowledges and reflects on his problems with both self-confidence and relationships. He’s often sad about it. The scene where he’s trying to drug his girlfriend is underscored with a very real sense of guilt and shame — there are obvious problems with this degree of dishonesty.

Though it’s the perfect hangout, Josh’s house is also a prison of the mundane: comfortable but unchallenging. Tom makes this apparent in episode seven, ‘Puff Pastry Pizza’, when he’s holed up in his room with Claire (Caitlin Stasey) while Josh hooks up with a stranger from the internet. “What are we going to do all night?” asks Claire. “I’m not going out,” says Tom, as though the idea of leaving the house is the worst thing he can imagine. Then, of course, he tries to make a move on Claire — his ex — since there’s nothing like self-sabotage to keep you stuck where you are. This might be a comedy, but it’s impossible to miss the despondent undercurrent running beneath such scenes.

Similarly, when Claire left for Germany in season two, she was supposed to have begun her path to fully-realised adulthood. Instead she’s returned home with memories of lonely conversations to fruit vendors and an unwanted foetus (or is it fetus?). “I just don’t understand how it was shit?” she says to Josh shortly after returning to Australia. “Like, how was moving to Europe to work a bad plan? It’s a good plan. It’s a plan that interesting people make.”

Interestingly, this is how Caitlin Stasey’s character left Neighbours; she went on a trip to England that later became the foundation for an exciting new life (and a permanent exit from the show). But in reality, things don’t always go so smoothly. There’s a gulf between one’s imagined identity and one’s actual experience that Please Like Me hones in on relentlessly. We saw this again in the wake of Claire’s abortion. “I thought my politics would keep me safe from my feelings,” she says. “I was wrong.”

Lines like this reinforce that this is really a show about being in your twenties. It’s about the sense of arrested development associated with an age where all your dreams of success are smoothed out into the homogeneity of reality. It’s the years when you realise that the future you imagined — one of travel, or financial success, or creative freedom, or the whole white-picket-fence-and-kids thing — doesn’t just happen by itself.

By providing a clear-eyed portrayal of this fragile filament between adolescence and ‘adulthood’, Please Like Me takes the familiar sitcom formula and grants it poignancy. It embodies that feeling of loving what you have and yet longing for something more.

The season finale of Please Like Me premieres Thursday at 10pm on ABC.

Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.