The love affair between Fairfax and Josh Thomas has been one for the ages. Occasionally though, we have to ask: maybe Fairfax is coming on a bit strong?
“Almost an angel”? Have these people ever actually watched Please Like Me? Even its fans think Josh can be a bit of a prick:
Time and again we have watched the shadow of pain cross his face, only to return in the form of bitter vitriol against those he loves.
Then again, this cover is promoting a profile that contains the insight “Flat hair is awful,” so perhaps we’re expecting too much.
Usually here’s where we’d point out that you can tell when a newspaper has lost all perspective when it’s running a huge story promoting a television series that only had one episode left to run. But how else could they run a picture of Josh Thomas dressed as a Christmas Tree ornament before December? And presumably a shot of him in his speedos couldn’t run until January at the earliest so obviously they had no other choice but to wait.
But if this story is pretty much useless when it comes to promoting the fourth and at this stage final season of Please Like Me, what is it good for? Well, for one thing, it’s quite handy for those looking to study the way these kind of profile pieces are constructed. Take, for example, the pressing subject of Josh Thomas’ hair:
Bald? In the past 13 years, Josh Thomas, who is now 29, has been a stand-up wunderkind (in 2005 he became the youngest ever winner, at 17, of the Raw Comedy Competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival), a commercial TV stalwart (including a stint on the quiz show Talkin‘ ’bout Your Generation), and, most recently, creator, writer and star of the hit ABC show Please Like Me. (The series, now in its fourth season, has won several awards and sold in several territories overseas.)
As is true for many comics, Thomas’s own best material is always himself: his unexpected coming out; his cute dog; his very odd voice. But baldness seems new, and also logically impossible. How could he be balder in season one (made in 2012) than he is in season three (in 2014)? “Oh,” he says breezily, sitting down, “I got a hair transplant between series two and three.”
A hair transplant? I am amazed. Do people still have hair transplants? Thomas leans forward, pointing to his lower scalp, near his ears. “They cut a strip of your hair from around here, and they slice it into tiny pieces, and sew it on here.” He pats the top of his head. “It grows forever.” He leans back. “People who go bald either aren’t paying attention, or don’t want to take a pill every day that slightly adjusts their hormones.” He smiles suddenly. “But I feel very comfortable taking any pill that gives me any moderate gain.”
Why has he never mentioned this? “Well, no one’s ever really noticed.” He shrugs. “Except for the occasional guy on Facebook saying, ‘Hey! You seem to have more hair! Um, how did that happen?’ “
Does the author believe that Thomas gaining hair between seasons of his television show is “logically impossible”? Is the idea of a hair transplant really the kind of thing that leaves journalists “amazed”? Is anyone who actually watched the first season of Please Like Me in any way surprised that Thomas had work done to prevent career-killing baldness? “No-one’s ever really noticed” seems like the kind of thing that may not actually be true – for one thing, he definitely must have thought people would have noticed otherwise he wouldn’t have spent thousands of dollars to stop himself from becoming a bald 30 year-old.
If you’re willing to stomach being treated like an idiot – or feeling like you’re reading some horrible giddy teen’s diary (“At this point, I have to confess, I fall slightly in love with Josh Thomas.”), there’s a fair bit to be gleaned from this article, though it’s probably not the obvious stuff both parties involved seem keen to impart. For one thing, those wondering how close the character of Josh on Please Like Me was to the actual Josh Thomas will have noted that the line “People who go bald either aren’t paying attention, or don’t want to take a pill every day that slightly adjusts their hormones” is exactly the kind of cluelessly dickish yet adorably charming – if you’re “slightly in love” with Thomas – line TV Josh drops all the time. Don’t those hair loss pills cost hundreds of dollars?
And once you realise that, it becomes much harder to swallow this:
On Please Like Me, [Thomas’] charisma infuses everything – set, characters, crocheted couch cushions – so you have one of those viewing experiences in which you watch half an episode and suddenly find yourself longing for the show to be real and for you to be in it: 22 years old, drinking wine from a plastic cup and doing shoulder shimmies to Justin Bieber.
But the show isn’t real; the star just admitted he had a hair transplant to keep his youthful looks, which last time we checked wasn’t a storyline on the show. And now here’s the bit where we have to loudly but firmly spell out the obvious: we don’t care what Thomas has done to his hair, or any other part of himself. He’s an actor, his looks are his career, maintaining those looks is perfectly legit and none of our business unless he wants to make it so.
What annoys us is when fans and reviewers of the show go on about how realistic the show is.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Please Like Me runs very close – at times terrifyingly close – to Thomas’s own life. He plays a character called Josh, who lives with his best friend Tom (played by his real-life best friend Tom Ward), his dog John (real-life dog John) and his stuffed hen (real-life stuffed hen Geoffrey). In episode one, series one, his mentally ill mum tries to commit suicide. Just like his real-life mum.
Last time we checked, Thomas’ real-life mum is still alive, which isn’t something we can say about the fictional one.
And that’s because, as the hair transplant detail underlines, Please Like Me is not some magic window into the pure truth about “real life”. It’s like every other piece of fiction ever: the creator (in this case, Thomas) chooses what to reveal and what to conceal in order to create something that seems real in some ways and not in others. Does anyone on Please Like Me have a steady job? Yeah, tell us some more about how realistic a look at 20-something life it is.
That’s not to say the show isn’t, as they used to say, “based on actual events”; it’s clear many of the show’s events are lightly fictionalised versions of Thomas’ real-life experiences. But just because something happened to him doesn’t make it interesting, and he doesn’t seem capable – or all that interested – in putting in the work to make those events work on television as drama or comedy. There’s no insight into what any of these events might actually mean, hence the ongoing presence in even the most glowing reviews of the reviewer wondering if we’re meant to like Josh or see him as a bit of a dick. We don’t know because the show doesn’t know; it’s just a bunch of things that happened.
Realism is a crutch fans of Please Like Me lean on to justify the way the show is largely about bugger all and often doesn’t seem particularly interested in being either funny or dramatic. But it’s not a realistic depiction of 20-something life: it’s a rose-glasses fantasy of cosy hipster-living with some mental health issues mixed in. Putting the two side-by-side doesn’t suddenly make “realism”; it makes it a fantasy with some real-world issues. And once you realise that it’s a fantasy – like every other show on television – then suddenly its flaws aren’t so easy to brush off.