TV Rewind: How the Empathetic Please Like Me Found Meaning in the Mundane

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TV Rewind: How the Empathetic <i>Please Like Me</i> Found Meaning in the Mundane

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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When Josh Thomas’ four (short) season comedy Please Like Me first aired in 2013, it was quickly compared to Lena Dunham’s Girls. Some even said it was Girls’ gay cousin from down under, and understandably so: both shows center on needy 20-something Millennials who think that the world only revolves around them. But the similarity actually stops there. Where Girls operated within a more mean-spirited drama landscape, Please Like Me tended to lean more into kindness and empathy—even when its characters are often self-centered and unkind to one another.

Much like the other quasi-auteurist TV shows such as Ramy and Catastrophe, Please Like Me is loosely inspired by the creator’s own life. The story mostly follows Thomas’ Josh as he tries to figure out what he wants and can do in his 20s. While this sounds just like a lot of other coming-of-age shows, Please Like Me is actually anything but. There are no big, dramatic moments; everything feels low-key and perfectly ordinary. Yes, career setbacks, romantic heartbreaks, even deaths do happen throughout four seasons, but the show never once makes a huge deal out of it; they are depicted just as parts of the characters’ lives instead of the things that define them.

When Josh and those around him—like roomie and best friend Tom (Thomas Ward), ex-girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey), and boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce)—are fighting, the cause is rarely about something serious. Most of the time their fights happen over food or something similarly trivial, like when Josh builds a barricade in front of Tom’s room to punish him for eating his truffle mac and cheese. This may not seem interesting at first (after all, who would wanna watch something so banal?) but the brilliance of Please Like Me lies in the way it captures those small, mundane details of everyday life and augments it into something interesting and relatable.

The show understands that, in our 20s, we feel like the world is big and constantly exciting, but oftentimes the reality is quite the opposite. As seen throughout the series, what mostly makes up that time in our lives is actually just the ordinary stuff: hanging out on the couch with roommates, talking about nothing and everything, sitting on the roof with friends, enjoying ice cream after a terrible day. Yet, underneath that ordinariness, there’s joy and pain that make these moments feel extraordinary.

Please Like Me captures this tension in all its messy glory, sometimes with warmth, other times with frankness and hilarity. And in an era where nearly all TV series are competing to have the highest stakes, Please Like Me’s simplicity feels like a breath of fresh air. That being said, the show isn’t trying to avoid weighty themes. Conversations surrounding queerness, homophobia, racism, abortion, and mental health also frequently take place—Thomas and his writers just find brilliantly casual ways to talk about them.

Take for instance the aftermath of a life-changing event that happens in the show’s very first episode, where Josh is being dumped by Claire because she believes that he’s gay (which is not wrong). In a lesser show, Josh’s journey as a newly out gay man would most likely be depicted as something huge, perhaps even something courageous. But in Please Like Me, there’s no big, dramatic speech or scenes where Josh reflects on his sexual preference. His gayness is chronicled as just a part of him. In one of the show’s most memorable episodes, Claire is having an abortion. But it’s never treated as the only thing that defines her character. Just like Josh’s arc, this is just another event that happens in her life.

The show also uses the same modest, candid, and surprisingly hilarious approach in exploring the complicated and darker subject of mental health. Depictions of suicidal ideations, depression, and bipolar disorder have been an integral part of Please Like Me from the beginning. In fact, the first season opens with Josh’s mom, Rose (Debra Lawrance), recovering from a suicide attempt, while half of Season 2 takes place inside of a mental health institution. Though Rose’s condition eventually adds a sense of bleakness to the story, the show always makes sure that she’s more than just her illness, and that she can also have laughs and love and moments of joy and levity as well.

Josh might be the main character, but all the most remarkable parts of Please Like Me have always been related to the way it handled Rose’s arc. Instead of just focusing on all the ugly aspects of what it’s like to live with mental illness, the series chooses to go the opposite way, showing us that depression and bipolar disorder are not always about being sad in dark rooms. Please Like Me finds a balance, and when it gets real about Rose’s illness, it does so in a way that is devastatingly truthful.

In the show’s best and most affecting episode, “Scroggin,” Josh takes his mom on a camping trip following the suicide of her friend, Ginger. And for the first time since Rose has been properly treated, the two have an honest, heart-to-heart conversation about her condition. “I don’t understand how you never got angry with me,” Rose tells Josh, referring to her own suicide attempts. “I’m so angry with Ginger.”

Josh responds, “I just try and understand that when you do things like this, that you’re doing them because you’re ill, and I don’t get angry the same way you wouldn’t get angry at someone with a cold for having a runny nose.” It’s a logical and powerful response, one that should change the way most people think about suicide. Please Like Me may not be solely about mental illness, but unlike most TV series, Thomas and his writers make a real effort to understand all details about it. As a result, it transforms the show from just a regular coming-of-age dramedy into an empathetic story about life with mental illness.

As illustrated in the show’s fantastic and heart-wrenching final season, not everything in our lives can be fixed. But that shouldn’t take the joy out of it. If anything, it’s by embracing that pain and messiness that we can begin to appreciate our life more meaningfully.

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Reyzando Nawara is a TV and film journalist from Indonesia. He’s mostly talking about Asian representation, foods, and mental health on Twitter. When he’s not busy watching TV and movies, or writing about them, he likes to spend his day in the kitchen, trying new recipes and mostly making sorbet.

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