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Fall’s Best TV Comedies, ‘Please Like Me’ and ‘Casual,’ Are a Sign of the Times

Fall's Best TV Comedies, 'Please Like Me' and 'Casual,' Are a Sign of the Times

In “Eggplant,” the Season 3 premiere of Pivot’s absurd and absurdly winsome “Please Like Me” (Pivot), the Australian comedy’s awkward protagonist, Josh (writer/creator Josh Thomas), and his anxious love interest, Arnold (Keegan Joyce), flirt and fight and fuck, constantly circling around what they really want to say. Rather than dash off a syrupy moment of truth, however, the episode culminates in a whip-smart allusion to “Love Actually” that bridges the gulf between words and meanings—and in the process confirms that the whimsical, romantic, seriously funny “Please Like Me” is (still) one of the best shows on television.

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From the “carol singers” and handwritten placards of Richard Curtis’ unaccountably popular Christmas movie, or the lovely, heartfelt rendition of Sia’s “Chandelier” that caps the second episode, “Please Like Me” constructs a challenge to the usual, tiresome terms of the “millennial” comedy. Few recent portraits of my generation have so successfully captured the rumpled texture of the experience; though Matthew Saville’s direction, using the production design’s explosion of colorful clutter to fine effect, creates a distinctive aesthetic, the series’ closest kin, tonally speaking, may be HBO’s “Looking” and Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America.”  

What distinguishes these films and TV series, in the end, is that they take up the subject of living through your 20s in the 21st century without recourse to the shorthand of op-ed columnists and Pew polls, recognizing—as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” intermittently forgets—that the wary self-absorption of the young was not invented alongside the Internet.

As Josh, Arnold, and Tom (Thomas Ward) build cardboard cities, drop Ecstasy, and rib each other over roasted eggplant and vegetarian pho, then, “Please Like Me” remains specific enough in the wry details that its broader observations feel wholly earned. Particularly in its attention to mental illness—both Arnold and Josh’s mother, Rose (the terrific Debra Lawrance), have been institutionalized in the past—and the hard work of being comfortable in one’s own skin, the series displays a deft comic touch, never patronizing either the characters or the viewer. “I don’t want you to get too close,” Arnold confesses to Josh, elucidating the increasingly assured series’ main thrust. “And then realize I’m actually not that likable.”

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Casual” (Hulu), from writer/creator Zander Lehmann and executive producer Jason Reitman (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”), frames its off-kilter sense of humor in a far glossier style, but as with “Please Like Me,” its central concern is how we present ourselves for other people’s approval—and find solace in those we don’t need to impress.

Thankfully, the title card’s rather cringe-worthy conceit, that the protagonists are in search of the “casual” relationships one might find through Alex’s (Tommy Dewey) popular online dating site, Snooger, turns out to be a form of misdirection. “Casual” practically screams “cable comedy,” but as it eases into its eight-episode first season, it forges a lived-in, often surprising portrait of kinship as both weapon and armor. This is credit, mostly, to Dewey and the tremendous Michaela Watkins, as Alex’s soon-to-be-divorced older sister, Valerie. Rather than focus on sibling rivalry, the tender, gently funny chemistry the pair develops is rooted in loyalty and love, an outgrowth of shared disdain for their eccentric mother, Dawn (Frances Conroy).

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By the time the series arrives at the upcoming season finale, “Bottles”—an instant classic of comic disaster that outclasses the vast majority of recent entries in that venerable subgenre, the dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner—Alex, Valerie, and Valerie’s teenage daughter, Laura (Tara Lynn Barr), fulfill the promise of the title in another sense entirely. Relaxed and unguarded, with intertwined veins of pathos and dark comedy, “Casual” may seem familiar in terms of subject matter, but it’s novel in the execution. It’s the perfect companion, in fact, to “Please Like Me,” a little bitter to chase the sweet.

It’s a sign of the times, I suppose, that both series so gamely twist convention, using the raw materials of romantic comedy to investigate idiosyncratic family dynamics at the far end of the proverbial dial. Indeed, the struggles of network comedies in recent years have only hastened the form’s migration to cable, premium, and streaming: as Slate’s Willa Paskin wrote in September, surveying a few debuts from ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX, the issue is not necessarily that the likes of “Life in Pieces” (CBS) or “The Grinder” (FOX) are without merit, but that “they are trying to be the finger in the dam, the last flare sent up into the night, the life preserver tossed into the sea that helps the network sitcom find its audience.” There’s a whiff of desperation to these entries that Josh would surely describe as a turn-off, and in today’s thicket of competition, the most vital, attractive comedies seem to be those content to let you pursue them, and not the other way around.

“When was the last time you met a new person and thought, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s an interesting thing you just said’?” Josh asks his mother in “Eggplant,” when she broaches the idea that Arnold’s not worth the trouble. I’m not sure about people, but “Please Like Me” and “Casual” are among the current series that fit this bill—fascinating from the first, and full of payoffs for the money and effort it may take to watch them. As one friend on Twitter remarked, “I want to watch ‘Please Like Me,’ but I don’t know what Pivot is,” yet venturing into TV’s hinterlands is not without its pleasures, particularly when that’s where the fall’s best TV comedies live. There’s still something to be said for the thrill of the chase. 

“Please Like Me” airs Fridays at 10pm on Pivot. “Casual” is now available on Hulu; new episodes premiere Wednesdays.

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