So, everyone’s fave mumblecore relationship drama has finally come to an end and… wait, what? They’re still trying to sell Please Like Me as a comedy? Oh, fuck off.
The problem with throwing your hands up and admitting defeat with Please Like Me – and by that we mean writing a review that says “hey look, it might not be about much but it’s a decent-enough take at the aimlessness of being in your early twenties and as that kind of low-stakes relationship drama it’s actually pretty well made”, which we almost ended up doing at a couple of points this series – is that even by those standards this show is a fucking tram smash. It’s a realistic look at millennial lifestyles, you say? So why is Josh making a living running a whimsical snack truck in a park?
On its own Josh’s snack truck is hardly a fatal flaw, even if it is the kind of hipster doofus crap that sets our teeth on edge. But it’s not on its own. Either Please Like Me is an actual sitcom, or it’s a twee dramedy that’s more about being a lightweight yet feels-heavy soapie than anything else. Which seems to be the tack many of its fans are on board with, even though it’s the equivalent of saying Friends would have been a much better show if there hadn’t been any jokes in it.
Josh running a snack truck works in a sitcom if it’s used as the basis for a bunch of jokes. Josh running a snack truck works in a lightweight soapie if there’s a subplot about, say, Josh trying to make a living from stupid schemes or Josh being stuck in crap jobs or something. But in Please Like Me the snack cart is… just there, like it’s funny or a telling detail or symbolising something in and of itself. None of which is the case; it’s the set-up to a joke, not the punchline. And that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed across three series of this show – it’s just lazy.
Before the angry mob of, what – a dozen Josh Thomas fans Australia-wide? – comes at us with knives in hand, let’s quickly stress what isn’t lazy about Please Like Me: for one thing, the direction is always top notch. If you’re the kind of television critic who’s impressed by an Australian television show that looks halfway decent… which would be all of them… then it’s no wonder you’ve been loving this.
The performances are all generally decent too. Even Thomas, who in a completely different show could be quite effective playing “Josh”. He’d be a guest star who fucks over one of the leads and is generally a hateful human being, but it’s possible to imagine him being funny if placed in a context that actually worked for his character comedy-wise. You know, like how Thomas’ entire television career comes from the way he was used as a punchline for Shaun Micallef’s jokes in Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation.
And on a cursory glance even the material seems like it should be funny. Talking about “outie” vaginas at Christmas lunch? Josh deciding to broaden his sexual horizons with an online random who just shows up at his house? A home-made video where a dog destroys a cardboard city? A show that actually wanted to make a fist of entertaining its viewers could have done a lot with that kind of thing.
But Please Like Me never seals the deal. It’s so committed to a half-baked idea of what “realism” means in a television show that it never takes that last couple of steps to come up with scenes that do anything more than just lie there. The first episode of this season was Josh trying to get Arnold to sleep with him. Then they slept together. Then Arnold was weird about it. Then they got over it. Just because things are things that happen in real life doesn’t mean you have to make a television show about them.
Look, we get it. There are a lot of people who want to see stories they can relate to on television and Please Like Me is trying to do that. But is the bar really set so low that “showing someone going to have an abortion” is in and of itself enough reason to throw praise at a television series in 2015? Does anyone else remember that when Homer Simpson said “it’s funny because it’s true”, it was a joke about how being funny actually requires more than straightforward observation?
It’s not like Please Like Me actually does anything with its big dramatic plots either. Much like the comedy, the writers – which would be Josh Thomas – seem to think merely coming up with things that are “dramatic” or “funny” is all they have to do to create scenes that are “dramatic” or “funny”. That’s not to say the dialogue isn’t realistic; that is to say that people having a realistic chat in an abortion clinic isn’t decent television unless there’s something more going on. And in Please Like Me, there never is.
Over and over and over again it presents the viewer with scenarios that are “dramatic” or “funny” and then fails to do anything with them. Because the show presents everything on the same stilted, inert level the dialogue always “works” – it feels like the kind of clumsy, awkward thing people actually say. But there’s nothing going on behind it. The drama isn’t dramatic, the comedy isn’t funny. The viewer has to do all the work to engage with the show – instead of making the effort to stylise its elements to create drama or comedy, it provides the raw materials and expects you to imagine the rest – and it’s just not worth it.
While we’re shoveling dirt over Please Like Me because it seems pretty clear to all concerned that it’s not coming back (after the ratings it got this year, how could the ABC even show it with a straight face?), is having your characters occasionally say “we’re growing up” enough to make up for the fact that no, they’re really the same shitty self-absorbed people they were back in series one? Please Like Me is like spending a whole lot of time with really convincing shouty look-at-us-we’re-so-cool people you wouldn’t want to have a table next to at a restaurant.
And worse, it’s a show that expects us to feel all warm and happy towards it because in a bunch of episodes it shows us two people – Josh and Arnold – constantly making out because they’re in love. Seriously? Did nobody tell Thomas that seeing two people constantly making out because they’re in love gives most people the shits? There’s like, maybe thirty seconds max of “aww, they’re in love” and then it’s “get a room” and then it’s “great, now I feel like shit because I don’t have what they’re having, just fuck off”. Wasn’t the comedy in this show meant to come from Josh being kind of awful?
You know what makes us happy? Laughter. Not twee greeting card sentiment about the value of friendship – we have actual friends for that. It used to just be a shitty joke that people watched Friends instead of having them; now it’s the kind of thing that gets people writing stuff like this with a straight face:
Everyone on Please Like Me cares about each other so much that sometimes they don’t know what to do with all of their feelings. They tease each other to death, but their mockery comes from affection, first and foremost. Their shared barbs, insecurities, and senses of humor create co-dependencies, which can either soothe or fracture the group depending on the day. But this intimacy, for better or for worse, is exactly what makes Please Like Me so good.
It’s lucky they care for each other so much, because going by the ratings the rest of Australia could not give a single solitary fuck.