Please Like Me debuts tonight on Pivot at 8 p.m. Eastern and will air all six episodes of its first season.
Pivot, the new cable channel aimed at attracting “millennials,” is celebrating its launch today with a marathon premiere of all six episodes of Please Like Me, an Australian sitcom created and written by its 26-year-old star, Josh Thomas. There are some mixed messages here. Given Pivot’s bold attempt to pitch itself as the TV home of a new generation, you might expect them to roll out some original programming, instead of importing a foreign series. It makes them look as if they’re a step behind Netflix and Hulu. (The network is preparing its own original, scripted series, but for now, Please Like Me is surrounded on its schedule by talk shows, reruns of Farscape and Friday Night Lights, and nonfiction programming left over from the channel’s previous incarcation as The Documentary Channel.)
At the same time, Pivot, which offers broadband-only subscriptions for viewers who would rather have their programming downloaded to the digital device of their choice than shell out to a cable company, seems to be looking to the online steaming sites for a broadcast business model. (They’ve also made the first episode available on YouTube, for viewers who want to taste-test it beforehand.) They actually seem to be trying to pass for a streaming site that only pretends to be a cable network, so that mom and dad won’t freak out when they try to explain what they do for a living. The channel has big ambitions, but at this point, what it mostly offers is the promise to discover shows that it thinks its target audience will enjoy and bring them to its attention. Until it finds a few more, or makes them for itself, it’s putting a lot of pressure on Please Like Me—all three hours of it—to single-handedly define the network and justify its existence. But at least, in importing Josh Thomas’ work intact, they’ve shown more respect for their audience than those American programmers who spring for pointless, inferior remakes of shows like Coupling, Free Agents, and Skins. They’ve also made a choice that speaks well for their own taste.
Thomas, who looks a little like the offspring of Mike White and Joel Hodgman, is small and pale, with straw-colored hair that sits on his head in a messy, awkward arrangement, as if he were practicing for his first comb-over. In his first scene, Josh—he’s called by his real name—is sitting at an outdoor café with his girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey), babbling about himself: “I’m turning 21 and this is as good as my face is ever going to be.” (He expresses his regret that puberty didn’t have more of a positive effect on him, then tells the girlfriend, “Puberty did a good job on you. You used to be pretty awful to look at.” When, inevitably, Claire informs him that she’s breaking up with him, she tries to soften the blow by pointing out that he’s gay anyway. This comes as news to him, even though when he goes to visit his best friend and roommate. Tom (Thomas Ward) at his cubicle job, Josh’s idea of male bonding antics is to rub his torso against Tom’s back while whinnying, “Wanna play ‘Sexual Harassment’?”
Thomas, who has said that part of the inspiration for the show was the surprise of what a non-event it was when he came out—he realized that he’d never seen something like that happen so casually on TV—knows how to bring out the comedy in hidden resourcefulness, in people who look like they’re not cut out for even everyday feats of heroism rising to the occasion. And, though you wouldn’t guess it from the show’s title, he knows how to play the embarrassments and setbacks of an unimpressive-looking guy without seeming pathetic. In the course of the first episode, Josh is dumped, discovers his true sexual nature (in the best way imaginable; a gorgeous guy takes a shine to him, invites himself over for dinner, than politely crawls into bed with him), and then, when his life seems to be on the upswing, gets the news that his mother has tried to commit suicide by taking pills and drinking half a bottle of Bailey’s. (When Tom hears about it, he asks, “How do you even drink half a bottle of Bailey’s?”) Josh’s father, who left Mom for a younger woman, is too busy wearing his guilty anguish on his sleeve to be of any actual help, and it’s suggested that Josh should move in with her and take care of her. This is pretty far outside Josh’s image of what he’s capable of: “I don’t know how to do caring. I don’t even know how to care for myself. I never floss!”
Please Like Me has been widely compared to Girls, though I’m not sure that anyone would be moved to mention the two shows in the same breath if they weren’t both being promoted as Important Generational Statements. The characters on Girls are constantly creating and escalating drama for themselves; the great charm, and constant source of humor, in Josh Thomas’ work is that Josh simply refuses to respond to the really big, game-changing events in his life as if things were crashing in on him. When he accepts that he’s gay, his only concerns about it are of a practical nature—i.e., “I don’t want to put anything in my bum.” (His beautiful-looking new boyfriend assures him that there are other options.) Please Like Me is so gentle-spirited and affectionate toward its characters, and so sane, that it never feels like cringe comedy. When Claire tells Josh that it’s over between them, he stares at the ice cream on the table in front of him and mutters, “This $15 sundae is suddenly pretty fucking humiliating.” If this show has a message, it’s that shit happens, and when it does, that sundae will probably still taste pretty good.