Josh, the unlikely hero of the delightful Australian comedy “Please Like Me” (Pivot), doesn’t count tact among his social skills. As played by series creator and writer Josh Thomas, he’s “turbulent, vague, flustered,” to quote one of several love interests, unafraid to turn his injudicious wit on family, friends, and most especially himself. “I had an erection,” he tells his friend, Claire (Caitlin Stasey), about an unrequited crush, “when he was telling me that he hates the idea of having sex with me.” Funny and frank, “Please Like Me” approaches its subject matter (friendship, sex, romance, mental illness, suicide) much as Josh approaches life, which is to say, indelicately. It’s a bull in the sitcom china shop, reveling in the mayhem of adulthood as an adolescent might an ingenious prank.
Though it bears certain hallmarks of “prestige” television — Thomas wrote or co-wrote each of the 16 episodes, all directed with colorful, kitschy irreverence by Matthew Saville — “Please Like Me” reads as a deft compromise between screwball comedy and messy naturalism. There’s a looping, unrefined quality to the writing that captures the awkward rhythms of actual speech (“When are you going to tell your cheeks to stop being fat?” is the closest it comes to a zinger), unearthing the humor in broken hearts, dead relatives, and psychiatric wards in the process. Among the most refreshing elements is its depiction of Josh’s sexuality. He’s gay, but the series doesn’t make a big deal out of it — in terms of sex, nudity, and romantic frustration, Josh’s love life comes in for the same hilarious appraisal as his straight friends’, which is all to the good.
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Yet the series also embraces the absurd and the surreal. Josh stencils “prison tattoos” on his infant stepsister, a young man in a dinosaur costume relaxes in a hot tub, and the characters dance to their own theme song, Clairey Browne & the Bangin’ Rackettes’ rousing rendition of “I’ll Be Fine.” In submitting the indignities of growing up to this puckish treatment, “Please Like Me” manages to take its characters’ darkest recesses seriously without ever appearing self-serious. Like Showtime’s underrated “The Big C,” in which Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) faced metastatic melanoma by refusing to play the martyr, “Please Like Me” recognizes that humor is a coping mechanism, too.
READ MORE: “Obituary for ‘The Big C,’ Starring Luminous Laura Linney”
Though the second season, which ended Friday, lacks the first’s compact narrative arc, expanding from six episodes to 10 and introducing a gaggle of new characters, the series continues to examine mental illness with a novel comic voice. After suffering a manic episode, Josh’s mother, Rose (the excellent Debra Lawrance) — who’s attempted suicide three times in the past — is admitted to a psychiatric clinic for treatment, and much of the narrative concerns her halting progress. As Josh develops an interest in Arnold (Keegan Joyce), a patient suffering from anxiety disorder, Rose befriends Ginger (Denise Drysdale) and Hannah (Hannah Gadsby) and enjoys an unexpected dalliance with a married man (Bob Franklin), all of it run through with the same goofy, easygoing charm that marks the constellation of kinships, friendships, and romances that comprise life outside the ward. Those in the “mental home,” as Rose terms it, turn out to be not so very different from everyone else, chuckling along as life throws up hurdles large and small.
This is the essence of the superb “Scroggin’,” a lovely, low-key two-hander that finds Josh and Rose on a five-day hike in the wilderness — even the title sequence is stripped down, with Rose singing “I’ll Be Fine” a cappella as they make their way along the trail. Rambling through comic registers, from “Shrek” allusions and fart jokes to bawdy one-liners and the slapstick that follows when Rose spots a snake, the episode finally strikes upon the genuine emotion always hiding in the series’ side pocket. Josh’s affecting description of the terror he felt at Rose’s third suicide attempt, in which he confronted the possibility that he’d have to watch her die, slowly, over the course of two weeks, corresponds with Rose’s own experience more closely than she imagined, and their connection in that moment is not just familial but familiar. “I don’t get your jokes, Josh,” she tells him later, though they find plenty to laugh about anyway.
Indeed, the key to “Please Like Me,” a story of finding and sticking with the people who help us find humor in the most dire of circumstances, is just how frequently, and how heartily, the characters laugh. Rose cackles, Josh sniggers, and Claire covers her mouth, but whatever the gag — Tom’s sketch of Josh as a “voluptuous woman,” a dead bunny in a “Happy Birthday” bag, a suicide note, coming out — the sound remains the same, unembarrassed and more than a little madcap. In the world of “Please Like Me,” the broken and the wounded are still in on the joke, because laughter really is the best medicine.
“Please Like Me” airs on Pivot in the U.S. Both seasons are available on iTunes and Amazon Video.