After watching the opening moments of Please Like Me’s Season Four premiere, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Josh Thomas’ comedy had created its gayest episode yet. You would also be correct. Lovable neurotic Josh (played by Thomas himself) is at a gay club, gleefully singing along as a trio of drag queens lip sync to Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away).” When Josh’s boyfriend, Arnold (Keegan Joyce) catches up with him, he has a beautiful young man in tow. “We kissed!” he beams. Following the necessary pleasantries, the three boys are next seen in Josh’s bedroom, taking off their clothes. The awkward threesome that follows, in which lanky, mop-haired Josh is the much-ignored third-wheel, is a perfect introduction to the show’s signature, cringe-worthy hilarity (“Well, I sort of tried to wiggle in the middle but that was hard so then I laid there alone but nobody noticed”). But it’s also an early indication of how the latest season of this Aussie show is as razor-sharp an examination of contemporary gay male intimacy as you’re likely to find on mainstream television.
Season Four, which is now available to stream on Hulu after the series’ usual American network (and co-producing partner), Pivot, went under last year, is the best in its short history. What was once a belated addition to the show’s core (Thomas’ coming out coincided with him developing the series) has now become a crucial aspect of its sensibility. Whether using a RuPaul song to score a quiet moment of self-reflection on a bus or mining Josh’s anxieties about what it means to grow old as a gay man who has no interest in having children, Please Like Me has grown into a delightfully assured series that skirts the line between being a “gay show” and “a show about gay people,” without really seeing either of those things as necessary labels to be boxed in by.
With their slice-of-life approach, the best Please Like Me episodes can feel like keenly observant character sketches. There’s a tightness to the series’s episodic breakdown that values character vignettes over a more belabored, serialized storytelling. The series is almost Seinfeld-ian in its plotting, with little more than “Josh and his friends go camping” or “Josh tries his hand at using dating apps” anchoring individual episodes. The time we spend with these characters, in restaurants and bars, in the kitchen and the bedroom, feels all the more, for lack of a better word, authentic.
To its credit, and as its fourth season shows, the series is deeply empathetic towards its characters even when it depicts them at their ugliest. When Arnold and Josh bicker while on a camping trip, Thomas and his co-writers make it almost impossible to side with one or the other. Josh’s humorous self-deprecation slides uneasily into blithe hostility; Arnold’s earnestness is equally comforting and cloying. When Josh confesses to his friend, Claire (Caitlin Stasey), that he’s unsure whether he hates his boyfriend or his boyfriend hates him, we’re in no better position than him to be able to tell the difference. When they eventually break up against a rainy backdrop on that very same trip, Arnold’s anger (“You’re always worrying about your forehead. It’s not even your worst feature!”) and heartbreak (“Why here? Why now?! You couldn’t pretend to like me until we got home?”) in the face of Josh’s teary-eyed admission that they should end things only deepens the messiness of their dynamic. Lest the show sound darker than it is, we should note that the episode ends with a rousing sing-along to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” on the van ride back into the city. Even Arnold, who is obviously aware of the inappropriateness of the lyrics given the morning’s events, eventually gives in and harmonizes to Bieber’s tune. It’s as bittersweet and ridiculous a moment as it sounds.
Uncoupling Josh also means the show finally tackles gay dating, and that proves to be a comic minefield: Josh attempts to take a flattering picture for his newly established dating profile (one of his ideas includes posing next to his dog while wearing a sweater with a dog print); flails around, trying to be politically correct, while on a date with an obscenely attractive Aboriginal man (“Everyone’s still so racist… not me, obviously, because, you know, I’m on a date with you!”); and hopes to keep things light while talking about safe sex with a hookup (“I am the Hermione of using condoms,” he blurts out).
The levity of these early episodes, which culminates in “Degustation”—in which we see Josh and his divorced parents, Rose (Debra Lawrance) and Alan (David Roberts), enjoying a tasting menu at a fancy restaurant while sharing fond and at times inappropriate memories of one another—comes to a halt with a heart-wrenching revelation in the following episode. For a series that’s taken such a frank and unvarnished look at mental health (its pilot is centered on Rose’s unsuccessful suicide attempt), the choice to go “there,” as it were, is not so much brave as inevitable.
“This is just one of those things that’s gonna be shit for a while,” Claire tells Josh when he breaks the news to her. “And then one day it’s just gonna feel less shit.” That simple honesty permeates the scenes of sorrow that follow from what will be a turning point in Josh’s life. The deft handling of this storyline (the details of which are best left unspoiled) is a testament to the show’s commitment to finding the humor and the humanity in the situations it depicts. For all its lightness, Please Like Me soars when, as it does in its final two episodes, it reveals its own sense of humor to be both necessary and futile in light of the darkness that always hovers just out of frame.
Manuel Betancourt is a New York-based writer who has contributed to Film Comment, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic and Esquire.