The Right Kind of Chap

We’ve been pretty hard on Fairfax’s television reviewers these last few years, what with their blatant nepotism and incessant championing of complete shit. But of late we’ve been wondering: have we gotten them all wrong?

Back when Marieke Hardy’s Laid was more than just a punchline to a joke about wasting taxpayer funds, Fairfax’s writers repeatedly praised it in tones that… well, “sickening” doesn’t really come close. At the time we figured it was largely due to Hardy being a both a Fairfax employee and friends with at least some of the writers, mostly because the writers often made sure to mention their friendship with Hardy. But what if we were mistaken?

There’s been a fair bit of talk around here about this recent column by Fairfax Green Guide editor Debi Enker praising Josh Thomas and his show Please Like Me:

 What’s the matter with you people? Why aren’t you watching one of the best comedies on TV? It’s not as though we’re over-loaded with great home-grown offerings. Yet one turns up, into its second season and still ticking along nicely, and no one’s watching.

Yeah, that’d be because it’s kinda shithouse.

Now, usually we’d take time out to point out that a lot of what Enker – one of Australia’s top television critics, don’t you know – says doesn’t make a whole lot of sense:

This is a low-key but incisive comedy about awkwardness and it’s more interested in how the characters interact than what happens to them.

You can’t really make a comedy “about” awkwardness, any more than you can make a comedy “about” laughter. You make a show about situations or events that cause awkwardness, which – we’d argue – means you’re not actually making a comedy. But even if you are, surely “how the characters interact” IS “what happens to them” – character-based dramas such as love stories and the like are all stories about “how the characters interact”.

As for “incisive”, pretty much the only insight provided to date is “awkwardness is really awkward” – it certainly hasn’t been “awkwardness is funny”. With his endless series of scenes where characters stand around making chit-chat that goes nowhere – yes, Thomas has made a sitcom that’s not as funny as commercial radio – Please Like Me is basically an aimless soap opera where every scene is designed to make someone feel embarrassed. Usually the home viewer.

But then we read today‘s “Couch Life” column by Ruth Ritchie in the Fairfax press, which contained this gem:

Closer to home Josh Thomas’ second series of Please Like Me (ABC2, Tuesday, 9.30pm) is a world away from Louie and yet there are similarities. Josh Thomas, like Louis C.K. has shaped a sit-com around the personae he has allowed us to come to know in variety and panel TV. He plants his gay awkward hipster character in a share house and throws in some dysfunctional family. The result is a very original, moving, hilarious show that is impossible to pigeonhole. As authentic and unusual talent as Josh Thomas is, the chance of one so young and so … un-Rove McManus achieving a show of this quality is slim and a tribute to all involved. He must get sick of the comparison with Lena Dunham and Girls. Both are young and unlikely looking stars. They embrace their outsider status and make it work in their favour. Josh Thomas probably has more heart, his humour springing from a less brittle and facile well than that of self-absorbed young folks in Brooklyn.

The fuck? Why is everyone over at Fairfax suddenly pushing the same “Josh Thomas is Your New God” angle?

(comparing Thomas to various cult comedy figures from the US? Check. Expressing surprise that something this “good” could be coming out of Australia? Check. Use of the word “awkward” like it’s a compliment? Check.)

Normally we would have simply assumed the usual rampant nepotism and been on our way. But as far as we can tell, there’s no direct link between Thomas and Fairfax (if anyone knows different, please let us know). So then why are they doing this? Kinne was a better show (and also on a non-core channel), but Fairfax all but ignored it. They can’t seem to say a nice word about Mad As Hell without making some snide comment about how Micallef is “too smart” for the masses. Hamish & Andy? They don’t even rate a mention.

Our best guess is that these writers honestly and deeply believe that whatever its flaws, Please Like Me is a Fairfax show. It reflects the core values of Fairfax readers: it’s an insipid, bland white guy (who likes guys sexually but isn’t in any way threatening) drifting through a variety of inner-city locales pondering slightly quirky questions in between dealing with his mentally ill mother. It is “ironic” and “edgy” and “not for everyone”. It is a show Fairfax can Get Behind.

We’re not saying some sinister figure in editorial has sent down an edict ordering public displays of support for Thomas: in much the same way that political writers don’t rise in News Corp unless they share the core beliefs of Rupert Murdoch, clearly television writers don’t get regular work at Fairfax unless they value bland, “quirky” upper middle-class Australian comedies over, well, pretty much anything else we make here.

And to some extent, we’re fine with that.  Newspapers, like all forms of media, reflect a set of values that (they hope) are attractive to their readers. If you’re somehow able to reconcile your personal poverty with supporting a political party that wants to make you even poorer, you read the Daily Telegraph; if you think replacing every single shop within a fifteen mile radius of the CBD with a cafe or boutique homeware store is a great idea, you read the Sydney Morning Herald. If you don’t agree with either there’s no real point complaining: they’re simply not for you.

The problem is, even if you’re 100% on board with Fairfax’s values Please Like Me is still not very good. Comedy might be subjective, but seriously guys: there’s just not all that much to laugh at here. And so what pisses us off about all this hollow praise is that it’s a sign that Fairfax’s television writers have decided that they’d much rather support a show based on cultural values than on actual quality. Which means we have all this space devoted to talking it up, only it reads more like the writers are trying to praise a show that they don’t really have that much praise for.

For fuck’s sake, Ritchie calls it “very original”, and then two lines later we get  “[Thomas] must get sick of the comparison with Lena Dunham and Girls.” Which one is it? And if you’re going to call a show “hilarious”, it helps if you can quote one single solitary joke from that show. If you found it funny, explain why – without simply assuming that awkward = funny (you do realise we have different words for those two things because THEY’RE NOT THE SAME THING).

Put another way, why is it in praising Louie Ritchie was able to quote an actual funny line to support her opinion of that show (“What are you afraid is going to happen if you hold hands with a fat girl? Are you afraid your dick is going to fall off?”), yet the best she could do for Please Like Me was to let us know that the “best material in the show belongs to the bipolar mother played with special deftness by Debra Lawrance”?

Could it be that she found one show actually funny while the other was, well, you know… just the type of show that Fairfax supports?

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20 Comments

  • Tony Tea says:

    Houston also gave it “Show of the Week” in the Green Guide.

  • Andrew says:

    Maybe just because I’m a Gen X-er but I don’t get this undying adoration of Josh Thomas in the media. I don’t find him very likeable or amusing at all and it’s not like I haven’t tried. I’ve sat through Talking About Your Generation, Can Of Worms, Dirty Laundry, those Optus ads… I fail to find anything amusing about him.

  • ricepicker says:

    Reviewers that age see a woody allen in thomas, that’s all. They associate the most superficial aspects of him with intellectualism—he wears sports jackets, occasionally, ties. That is it. There is nothing more they see. There is no wit, no special interactions with people. He’s marketed as a kind of woody allen style character, and that is exactly what these baby boomer reviewers buy into. They of course don’t understand allen, or the intellectualism they think is admirable, but boy do they see it in thomas. That ugly, untalented, odd-nosed (petty, I know, sorry) shaped kid, who will go away at some point.

    You really have to wonder what the fuck these reviewers are smoking. Sometimes I read this stuff (articles in question) and I feel fucking abnormal. How can anyone say anything positive about this show? What world are we living in? Thomas is awful, his show is awful. He’s probably a nice guy, he should get a job at hbhifi and hang out with asian girls. This country is batshit insane.

  • Peta says:

    Whenever I see these Fairfax articles of praise filled with hyperbole for people like Thomas, I always wonder if I’m the one who is missing something. But I watch a lot of comedy, I know what’s funny and makes a great show and what doesn’t. Thomas’ falls into the latter category. You’d think reviewers would have also watched enough top notch comedies to be able to see that too. So no, I’m not missing something. And all I can think is that maybe because Josh is gay this is considered an edgy show and so it must be good right? Right? Right?

  • Matlock says:

    I’m a Gen Y-er and I feel the same. I don’t get Josh Thomas’ popularity at all.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    What’s so frustrating is that he isn’t (if ratings are any guide) popular – he’s just foisted on comedy fans because various “taste-makers” think he’s what we want. And the fact he’s not very funny underlines that whatever criteria they use to judge what they’re going to push doesn’t include being good at your job.

  • Urinal Cake says:

    But are you gay? I remember during S1 one of the commentators saying we didn’t ‘get it’ because we were straight. Even if that were the case the ratings don’t seem to indicate the whole gay community has come out to see it.

    The thing about PLM is that it can behind ‘dramaedy’ and be shite at both. What it really is however is some kind of mumblecore soap opera. Still shite though.

  • Bernard says:

    My theory is that the ABC is grooming Josh to write everything on ABC TV. The reasoning is because the ABC recently accounced it is shifting its programming emphasis from older viewers to the 20-50 demographic. Apparently the average ABC viewer is 61 years old (perhaps they can round up all us old farts and turn us into Soylent Green). In future, everything on the ABC will be mumblecore crap like PLM. Maybe Marieke Hardy can help out Josh, seeing as she loves mumblecore.

    Something fishy is definitely going on with PLM. No other show that gets 74,000 viewers gets re-commissioned (and it seems PLM will be re-commissioned well into the future). If Pivot TV loves the show so much, why doesn’t it take over funding the whole thing?

  • Matlock says:

    “But are you gay?” No. That must be it then. Guess I’m not just with it then, darnit (kicks can)………I don’t know where I was going with that.

  • Yeps says:

    Curiously, I get the sense that we never would have heard of Josh if not for Micallef and Your Generation, where he was essentially the show’s precocious, bouncing hamster down the end of the panel.

    The tonal gag, impeccably cultivated by Micallef’s relationship with each of them, seemed to be that Amanda was the Boomer nostalgic, Charlie was the Gen X cynic, and Josh was the whimsical but twee Gen Y spacecase.

    That’s what (again, with Micallef doing all the heavy lifting) made their interactions amusing. He had a faux animosity with Josh’s flimsy attention span in the confines of a ‘game show’ format. The ‘sit up straight’ and ‘eyes forward’ tone Micallef could bring to the nonsense he was delivering bounced nicely off Josh’s tilted-head, befuddled, actually-just-staring-at-a-butterfly-out-the-window interaction with the games.

    Again, it wasn’t genius, and it was all dependent upon the tonal layer of performance Micallef was able to orchestrate and utilise, but it was there.

    I just don’t understand how a bit of comic frisson on a panel show can launch Josh into this position of ‘voice of a new comic generation’, with seeming carte blanche on his own inane project and a peanut gallery of critics literally calling for audiences to throw roses at his feet (I still can’t get over that Debi Enker column).

    Meanwhile the Dr. Frankenstein who actually made it look like that corpse had spark has to fight so hard just to get Mad As Hell, or any of his other projects, on the air.

    I know from years of watching it happen that audiences can find it easy to overlook how extraordinary Micallef actually is, but the career of Josh Thomas seems to be the best evidence that network executives and a shocking amount of critics don’t have a damned clue.

  • Billy C says:

    I don’t understand why Fairfax bother with so many tv writer’s if they all have the same opinion and that opinion usually has little in common with the public’s taste.
    I suspect the ratings this week will be so low they aren’t reported.

  • Bernard says:

    Jesus Frack, another gushing story on Josh, this time from The Guardian:

    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/australia-culture-blog/2014/aug/26/josh-thomas-please-like-me-interview

    Is there a single journo in this country who does not think Josh is God’s Gift To Humanity?

  • Tony Coca-Cola says:

    WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?

    http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/blogs/the-tribal-mind/the-10-best-australian-characters-on-australian-tv-20140823-3e6f0.html

    Granted, there’s not much to choose from within Australian TV presently, but still – WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?

  • Urinal Cake says:

    It must be the positive US press, US money and his relative youth that hints at greatness that has critics jumping on his bandwagon. Or people just really enjoy a better lit and better cast version of their lives finally on tv.

  • 13 schoolyards says:

    That’s pretty much every single Australian television character this year.

  • Andrew says:

    TV Week has also done a gushing 4-star review for next week’s Please Like Me…

    What is with the media that they universally love/praise this show? What is the ABC putting in their coffee??!? It’s disturbing to see one show that is at best mediocre get such undeserved undying praise.

  • Matlock says:

    Jesus fuck, they have Josh reading the ratings classification before the show now…..I have to put up with his weird, hard-to-nail-down accent BEFORE the show as well? C’MOOOON

  • Yeps says:

    Maybe this is all just an elaborate long-game to destroy the ABC.

    Keep praising their most niche, mediocre fare until that’s all they program, the ratings are nonexistent, and the idea of pouring more tax-payer funds into propping it up become a public outrage.

    Then suddenly it has to be commercialised and sold just to save it from itself.

    Perhaps ‘Josh Thomas is a genius’ is just step one toward Unky Rupert’s ABC, where Andrew Bolt’s Mediawatch and Insiders run daily, and the Bananas in Pyjamas sing about why hacking scandals aren’t really that big of a deal.

  • Billy c says:

    64000 for episode 3. All the press in the world can’t drive an audience.