It’s invigorating to watch a show this in control. Every episode has been laugh-out-loud funny and movingly honest—not just confessional or trenchant but true in ways that make you realize you’ve never seen that on TV before, like when Josh tunnels under Arnold. And it’s not about fake nonsense, either, but rather real nonsense. And real, uh, sense. It’s still growing, too, not just in narrative but in form and subjects. Season two is masterfully arranged visually, wringing all that power from basic colors and geometric blocking, and still season three keeps reaching. It retains that classical Please Like Me foundation, but it has new tricks, too. And while the show has always been about Josh’s family and social life in addition to his romantic life, the romances were the spines of the first couple seasons. This year feels more relaxed now that Josh is dating Arnold. Consequently we get a season bound together by friendship.
Start with Tom’s rehabilitation. He’s done some despicable things to his love interests and then wallowed in his own moral filth about it. Season three starts by keeping him away from women so that his connection to the story is as Josh’s best friend. And Tom absolutely shines as the best friend. He’s sincerely happy for Josh and Arnold even when they keep making out in front of him, he saves Adele’s dinner party by launching into a song, and now he recognizes that Arnold and Claire are having bad days and tries to cheer them up with “Johnzilla,” his hopefully viral video sensation wherein John the dog destroys the city of Cardboard Metropolis. It’s notable that he’s doing this for Arnold and Claire. Ella is his girlfriend and Josh is his best friend, but these two are just plain friends. Unfortunately for them, John’s a pacifist. Josh encourages his dog not to do anything he isn’t comfortable with, and the little guy politely steps over the bridge and leaves Cardboard Metropolis. Instead Tom lets Claire have the fun of destroying the city. She isn’t very enthusiastic at the start, but she puts on Josh’s frog suit and gives it her all. The episode ends with the beautiful sight of Claire throwing her hands in the air and laughing. It’s kind of a motivational poster image, but it’s a day she could use one, and there’s nothing generic or corporate about that frog suit. It’s a quintessentially Please Like Me image of happiness.
Arnold’s upset because he tried to spend a night back at his parents’ house. We don’t see it. Instead he barges back into the story at the end saying, “Well, that was fucked.” Apparently his dad got to play magnanimous by telling Arnold he’s trying to work on accepting that his son is gay. The fact that there are two genuine and opposite reactions to this news is a sign of Please Like Me’s maturity. Tom says, “That’s…good…isn’t it?” I love the token straight guy point of view Tom can sometimes represent. The women get it, the gays get it, but Tom doesn’t quite innately understand what’s insulting about having to work on accepting your kid’s sexuality. And actually there are more than two reactions to Arnold’s news, because the others all generally agree that Arnold’s dad is a cun, but they have slightly different interpretations on what the best reaction would be. This is similar to the conversations gay people have when a fictional character comes out. What’s the best way to come out? Does he have to say the words? Is “I know” a kind or condescending response? All of which is really about the right thing to do when a real person comes out. Some TV shows get to the coming out scene. Few break it down like this. After sort of skipping it in season one, Please Like Me has really dug into the coming out process this season.
Josh’s parents have always had a relatively friend-level relationship with Josh, and it’s especially true this year with Alan making friends with Tom. In “Pancakes With Faces,” Alan calls Josh to hang out. Josh can’t—he really can’t—and it’s probably good for Alan to figure out how to cope with his new single life without solely relying on his son, but the revelation that Alan is calling from the end of a diving board at an apartment pool he’s considering is a little tough. It’s hitting him that, like Claire, he doesn’t have anyone except Josh.
Rose keeps calling Josh, too. She’s trying to spitball revenge schemes for her soon-to-be ex Stuart: Hire a gigolo with a big package and tight shorts, maybe? Josh asks, “Why do you think he’ll be jealous? You’ve got a prostitute; he’s got a wife. This isn’t a win for you.” The call is scored with silent comedy piano music, in case you haven’t picked up on the slapstick. Eventually Rose decides to paint the C-word on Stuart’s lawn. “The C-word?” Josh asks. “I don’t understand. Corn? Cuticle? Cornelius?” She only gets through C-U-N before running out of paint, so she knocks over his bird bath and runs off. This isn’t mom stuff. It’s friend stuff. And Josh is actually a pretty good friend to his mom here, offering constructive criticism and generally discouraging her from doing anything too crazy. Claire says, “I thought you said she’d been getting better.” Josh replies, “Yeah, she’s making plans for the future. It’s a breakthrough.”
That’s the main friendship in “Pancakes With Faces,” Josh and Claire. The episode starts in her bedroom the morning of her abortion and takes her through the process with Josh at her side the whole time, give or take that call from Rose. “I am very excited to exercise my right to decide what happens to my body today.” That’s what Claire says on the way to the clinic. A couple hours earlier she was floating the idea of maybe having the baby. It’s all very funny and honest—Josh immediately regretting winking at Claire before she goes to see the doctor, Claire laughing at the idea that Josh could force her to do anything, the doctor asking if there isn’t anyone else in the entire world who could be Claire’s buddy—and simply seeing the procedure of pills and pain and flushing is revealing to some extent. At one point Claire has to keep a pill under her tongue for half an hour, so Josh takes advantage of the opportunity to monologue. When she tries to join in, he steamrolls her, and she just cracks up. Caitlin Stasey keeps a very straight face for half the episode—the better for that ending to land—but the rest of the time she can’t help but laugh. The defining image of the episode is Claire laughing at Josh’s side in the abortion clinic.
But the highlight is a beautiful scene in bed where Josh brings Claire fried chicken and they agree to exchange their most irrational thoughts from the day without judgment. This is just after Claire has flushed the tissue and taken a shower, the camera pushing in on her as she tries to come to terms with the day and get clean. Cut to Claire slumped over in bed with John the dog in this classic Please Like Me image, centered on and aimed straight up the bed with this soft pink afghan in bunches diagonally up one side. Behind Claire is this wall of stuff, a mess but a tidy one, everything with its own space: printed out photos, a big square tapestry, a framed map, a round hat, a party banner, other adornments, most of it golden. It’s a delicately arranged mess, which you might say describes Josh and Claire both. Claire starts the confessional: “I thought that my politics would keep me safe from my feelings, and I was wrong.” That’s a common experience, but uncommon in TV stories. Then Josh says something that I have definitely felt and definitely never seen expressed on TV. “I got jealous that you could get pregnant.” It takes a show this silly to recognize the value in things like this. Later Claire goes Ella, confessing she dressed up because she didn’t want the doctor to think she was like the other girls, and then feeling bad about herself for thinking that. They both eventually get to the same confession: They fantasized about keeping the baby.
Finally Claire sobs. “I feel guilty.” Josh is almost too good this season, but he tells her what she needs to hear in as gentle a way as he can muster. “Yeah, okay, I know you know, I’ll just say, you have nothing to feel guilty about.” She’s crying still but nodding too. And then she gets to the whammy. “It’s just, this is it. It’s like, we’re grown-ups. This is it. We’re not practicing anymore.” That’s the season in a nutshell. This is it. This isn’t a story of arrested development or its even simpler cousin, the story of snapping out of arrested development for love. This is a show that’s growing up and doing so, in Tom’s words, organically. The proof is in the pancakes.
- “Pancakes With Faces” is written by Josh Thomas and Liz Doran and directed by Matthew Saville.
- Josh is sitting in bed with Claire discussing the abortion clinic visit when Tom busts in. “I’m really nervous about the dentist.” Josh shouts in mock horror, “Not the dentist!”
- Ella gets nervous in the dentist waiting room. “Why’d you bring me with you?” “I didn’t bring you with me. You just came.” “Well you know I can’t be by myself.”
- Claire looks in the toilet before flushing. “Do you think I should take a picture and then show it to people when they show me photos of their kids?”
- Ella and Tom are officially going steady. They immediately start teasing each other. He ends with “You’re bad at sex.” “Oh no, I’ve got another shit boyfriend.”