It’s safe to say we haven’t been in tune with the critical consensus around Please Like Me from the start. Critics love it; we’re left scratching our heads. But the antics of the last few weeks have gone at least some of the way towards explaining this gap, because as we’ve read report after report after report about how the show’s fans have been wailing and gnashing their teeth over the tragic death of Josh’s mum, we’ve been thinking “hang on a second – how many fucking people have died on this show already?”
A big death in a sitcom – or a drama – is a well you can only visit occasionally. Rack up a hefty body count and each death means less whether you’re watching The Wire or The Walking Dead. Most comedy shows keep the big emotional character deaths to a bare minimum; even a show like Buffy with a double figure body count only really turned on the waterworks that time when Buffy’s mum died. So how many big deaths has Please Like Me served up?
Anyone else seeing a pattern here? A boring, emotionally manipulative, badly written pattern?
If you’re writing a sitcom – wait, we mean “dramatic comedy” – where the big third act twist every year is that somebody dies, forgive us if by season four we don’t feel surprise, or much of anything else, when it happens once again. You can be less forgiving of the way we also feel it’s lazy writing, cheap drama, and the hallmark of a show that’s been poorly written from the outset, but we clearly don’t give a shit about your feelings as truly concerned critics wouldn’t be mocking your pain when the grief is still oh so raw.
[what exactly are people grieving here? As supporting characters go “Josh’s Mum” was central to the show but not exactly top tier. Maybe if they’d killed off Tom we would have cared more. Guess there’s always season five.]
What all this kerfuffle makes clear is that Please Like Me is not a show the fans enjoy for superficial reasons like characterisation or plot or sharp one-liners. Of course they don’t: it doesn’t have any of those things. Remember how the scene everyone praised in the first episode of this season was Josh playing with a teddy bear on a bus? They’re giving that shit away for free if you’re willing to risk hanging around the local kindergarten.
What the fans seem to like is the whole atmosphere of the show. It’s an idealised fantasy of twenty-something life, a blur of cosy share houses and late night clubbing and awkward family dinners where it’s clear your parents still love you despite all your problems and friends that stick to you like glue even though you have your differences there too.
And you know what? We’re fine with that. Decent television has been made based on less. And Please Like Me does a good job of it: it always looks great, and the seemingly accidental combination of often sub-par acting and clumsy scripting actually creates a “realistic” vibe that makes it easy to buy into the fantasy that what we’re seeing is an actual slice-of-life.
But we’re not seeing an actual slice-of-life: it’s television, and calling it “honest” is a somewhat major misreading of what’s being served up. Sure, if by “honest” you mean “hey look, a show that admits people die” the label fits, but then Game of Thrones is leagues ahead in the honesty stakes there. And what else is left? “People fight”? “Relationships end”? “Josh Thomas once played with a teddy bear on a bus”?
Realism – and no, we haven’t forgotten we’re talking about a show still often described as a comedy – is about more than just presenting difficult issues.
The show has dealt with homophobia and racism, depression and workplace harassment, breast cancer and STDs. There was an abortion which, in a refreshing turn, was treated not with kid gloves but with openness and no regrets. There was commendably realistic gay sex – a lot of it.
And? Is it enough now to just present a laundry list of hot button issues? All those topics have been tackled on other, much better shows: there was a “no regrets” abortion on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend just a few weeks ago. The Office dealt with workplace harassment; STDs have been “dealt with” on comedies since the 70s. Racism? Kingswood Company did it better.
We’re well aware that we’re talking at cross purposes when it comes to Please Like Me. Fans want to talk about the issues it deals with; we want to talk about the way it deals with those issues. Not the “sensitive” way it tackles them – Josh Thomas and company are clearly not idiots, and they’re firmly on the right (that is to say, left) side of these topics – but the way it tackles them as a piece of art.
Call us old-fashioned, but it’s just not enough to take the right stance on the right issues if you want to create decent television. We don’t watch television to have our beliefs confirmed as the correct ones – we take our beliefs much too seriously to let a sitcom influence what we believe either way. We watch television first and foremost to be entertained, as that’s all it’s good for. And as entertainment Please Like Me is just not all that good.
At this stage, going on about exactly why it’s not good would be a waste of everyone’s time. Where fans see brilliant acting from Thomas, we see a firmly average actor being placed in scenes where his inability to express subtle emotions makes him a blank the audience can project their feelings on (see also: Eminem’s entire performance in 8 Mile). When you present a character with the body of his dead mother, staring blankly isn’t great acting, it’s staring blankly while the audience thinks “wow, he must be totally devastated yet also resigned because he clearly knew this was always going to happen – what a great performance to convey all that”. When he cries, he’s just in a scene where he has to cry.
How can we be so mean? How can we just dismiss the fans’ feelings when clearly this show has affected them so deeply? Surely it’s the mark of a great show to make people care so much about the death of a supporting character? Well, no.
Long-running shows make you care about their characters, especially if they’re heavily character-based. Killing off a character you care about is always going to make you feel something. Please Like Me is a niche show that rates so badly literally the only people left watching are the hardcore fans: we’re willing to bet money more people were more devastated when that guy – you know the one – died on Offspring.
Ok, so now we’ve proved conclusively that Please Like Me is crap. But don’t take our word for it – even Fairfax’s Please Like Me superfan Debi Enker knows it has serious problems:
Yes, the characters can be muddled as they confront life’s big questions: Am I gay? Is this love? Have I chosen the right career? Can I save my marriage, and do I really want to? They can make mistakes and behave badly. But one can only take so many scenes where they hang around in each others’ flats or congregate at the FU Bar and moan.
It’s instructive to look at the British series This Life, by comparison. It dealt with characters at a similar stage in their lives. It also had a community of twentysomething characters linked by where they lived. But, crucially, it integrated them professionally. All the principal characters were, or had been, lawyers. Key parts of the show’s landscape were its characters’ struggles with their careers: the jockeying for position, the politics of the firm, the cases they were handling.
This integration of their working lives added a dimension and momentum to the series, and gave the characters a place beyond the bars and bedrooms, affording an additional perspective. They might be stumbling around, doing self-destructive things, but there was always a sense that they were doing something.
Oh wait, that was from her review of The Secret Life of Us back in 2001. Still kind of relevant here though. For a show constantly praised for being “honest”, Please Like Me sure wasn’t interested in the struggle to make a living – a struggle that, last time we checked, tends to pretty much dominate the lives of most twenty-somethings.
So is it finished? It’s hard to imagine it going on, but we say that every year. It’d be hard to top the dead mum, but Josh still has a few friends who could fall under a bus and there’s always more hot guys to pash. But with Pivot, the US network that’s been funding the show since season two, having collapsed earlier this year and the ABC seemingly extremely disinterested in putting money into it (who could blame them – the free-to-air ratings are reportedly so low it’s being beaten by statistical errors), it’s hard to see how it’ll be back. Just one more death for the fans to grieve.
It’s hard to watch, but life itself is hard to endure. And Please Like Me just reminded us all of that.
Oh, it’s been reminding us of that for a long time now.
Hulu bought season four, so don’t count your cancellation chickens just yet…