“Champagne” and “Christmas Trifle” make an unfortunately smart pair. What goes up, must come down. “Champagne” starts as low as Please Like Me gets. Josh Thomas is a picture of nerves on his hospital visit to see Ben. Seriously impressive performance here. He can barely smile. The usual opening credits montage can’t even manage a cut this time. It’s a single take on the gray elevator up to the dying man’s room. Luckily the episode continues that elevation on the observation wheel. Yes, the gondola gets so claustrophobic that Arnold has to curl up, and both couples are one wrong word away from splitting up, but with some right words Josh manages to restore everything, and the episode ends as happily as possible. Ben lives.
Unfortunately, that puts everyone in a bad place for Christmas: Things can only get worse, which they do, almost immediately, in small ways at first, some text and some subtext, eventually amassing into a gaping yaw, just an enormous void pecked into existence by all these anxious people. I wonder what would have happened if Ben had died. What are the odds things might have turned out better?
Not that they turn out so badly—and sorry for skipping to the end, but the episodes air together in the US, so there’s no reason to dwell on Rose and Hannah’s hoarder house like it’s particularly funny or revealing after we’ve already seen the Stuart fiasco—but the final shot is Josh eating one of the many desserts he made for his family alone on a park bench with John. He’s available, fellas.
I mean, I think he is. After Arnold snaps, which is bound to happen after the whole family—even Ella—treats gravy like it’s Little Sebastian, Arnold spits in Tom’s plate, and this is important, as a joke. He’s trying to play along. He just goes too far, he gets too worked up, and he leaves. It’s not defensible, but neither is their treatment of him. And Tom claims he loves Arnold. But the main point is Arnold doesn’t immediately fall to pieces. He tries. He just fails. That’s the episode.
So anyway he’s outside waiting for a ride to a cold, emotionless family Christmas. The two Christmases are like the difference between being off your meds and going too far and being on them and unable to feel anything. So that’s Arnold right now. He’s actually fleeing to the place where he can’t feel.
Josh chases after him. It’s not a big rom-com airport moment. It’s the kind of thing Josh has been doing all day. The episode begins with them in bed together, Arnold gnawing on Josh’s face because he likes it. Josh asks, “What can I do to make today less shit for you?” Arnold replies, “Love me.” “Done.” Throughout the day Josh is attentive and personal with Arnold, making it feel like they’re a team amid the group, which is decidedly not the feeling Ella and Tom or Alan and Mae give off. But now the issue that someone finally says out loud in “Champagne”—Claire, to Josh, “You have a rescue complex”—rears its ugly head at the end of “Christmas Trifle.” Arnold says he doesn’t want to move in with Josh. “All lunch I kept thinking that I was being less interesting than Ben, and I can’t spend my life worried that you’re gonna find some vulnerable guy with arthritis or chronic psoriasis or whatever. I just, I’m tired.” Josh lets him be. He’s tired too. Otherwise he might have brought up the fact that he never wanted to be in an open relationship and the fact that Ben is maybe dying and, for the last time, he doesn’t even like Ben romantically. Instead they get the Looking season one ending, trailing off. I guess people tend not to say, “We’re officially broken up now,” but Josh and Arnold let go of each other awfully quickly and easily.
All season long I’ve been marveling at how Josh is the stable one. In a way, that was his problem. He’s drawn to people he perceives to be in need of help, and it saps him. After Arnold leaves, Josh walks back in and unburdens himself, calling out Claire for complaining about her life without trying to improve it, Rose for being off her pills and expecting him to come take care of her, Alan for being incapable of talking about feelings. Josh says he even has to treat Tom with kid gloves. The funniest: “Hannah, wow, no one’s allowed to make fun of Hannah.” Mae’s the one who gets off, because she’s the only one who has it together as much as Josh. Everyone else should not solely be relying on Josh for support. They’re all children.
Both episodes are hilarious and intermittently sad group gatherings, but the scripts are pointedly different. “Champagne” is banter among friends, one by one, classic sitcom presentation. For example, when Claire says Josh has a rescue complex, Arnold asks, “Are you talking about me there?” Tom pipes up. “Well, you did meet in a mental home.” Josh bats clean-up. “Stunning empathy.” Almost every line is a mini beat, the actors going from one position to another, even if just with a shift of the head. Every line gets its space. “Christmas Trifle,” on the other hand, is exactly what Josh describes. It’s a constant cacophony, a noisome nattering, peck peck peck peck peck. The highlight is when Arnold has to politely eat Rose’s shortbread, which he’s doing because he’s nervous about the gravy lie. We watch him take a bite, and then we see her pleased reaction, and then we see him try to swallow, and then we cut back to her delight. It’s not over yet. He takes a second bite and the conversation continues down the table. This time the shots are of each side of the table instead of just Arnold and Rose, but Arnold and Rose are on the ends, off to the side of the scene, just staring at each other as he pretends to enjoy the shortbread. All the while the party yammers on. In one of those Josh-Arnold asides in the crowd, Arnold says, “She watched me eat the whole thing like I was a cat taking medicine.” That’s a good sense of this particular party, too. At both the Ferris wheel and Christmas, everyone is trying to distract from their own problems by pointing out the faults of others, but at Christmas nobody can stand off to the side. Everyone’s watching everyone.
On a related note, the Christmas dinner is perfect for Please Like Me visually. The colorful tissue crowns, all the prepared food, the whole cast in a geometric arrangement around a couple of mismatched tables—it captures the bright, delicate, theatrical approach of the show, the tidy mess. Whereas the Ferris wheel is more in keeping with the hospital, only instead of a sad gray, it offers a formal gray. Business gray. Which is not conducive to emotional discussions. Turns out neither is the colorful family meal.
Yet there is something that Ferris wheel captures about Please Like Me that the dinner party doesn’t: its cosmic sense of romance. One of the standout scenes of season two is when Patrick and Josh finally kiss. For real, I mean. Josh is spinning in place, like a planet, and Patrick stands up and plots this diagonal course across the rectangular court right for him. There’s so much beauty in that simple geometry. The slow-moving wheel on its rigid angular scaffold again brings about the sublime in the mathematical. As Arnold recoils from Josh and what he imagines Josh’s relationship with Ben to be, Josh sits down next to him and asks him, step by step, to calculate the odds that Josh met someone he loved who loved him back. And as Arnold gets to math, he realizes the answer is tiny. Yet they found each other. Josh says, “I love you, and you love me, and it’s just the most remarkable coincidence.”
“Champagne” doesn’t limit itself to romantic love. Tom says he loves Josh as much as he loves pancakes and Claire. That’s one of the great things about the season. Romance isn’t the backbone of the show. It’s just one of the ribs among many. It’s beautiful that Josh and Tom found each other, that Alan found Mae, that Claire came into their lives, that Arnold and Hannah and Ella and even Ben came along. But Josh can’t rescue everyone. Realizing that, however much it hurts, is part of growing up.
- “Champagne” is written by Josh Thomas and Thomas Ward and directed by Matthew Saville.
- Josh visits Ben in the hospital. Josh says, “You look fine.” Ben laughs. “You sound annoyed about it.”
- After the visit, Josh hides under the comforter as he spills his guts to Arnold about Ben, whom he describes as “a real weird, annoying freak boy, exactly the type of person who gets excited to see my penis, right? No offense.” Arnold asks, “He’s not in there, is he?”
- Once more with feeling, I love what Ben brings to this show. His real weird annoying freak-ness is exactly what the show needs after an infusion of Ella, who’s just as great in her own right. Please Like Me is unusually good at introducing new characters and folding them into the group, especially for a coming-of-age show, where new friends and lovers tend not to last.
- Arnold: “You like him?” Josh: “Yes, but not romantically.” That should have been the foundation of all Ben conversations. Instead Josh’s phantom attraction to Ben haunts Arnold until he can’t take it.
- In the hot tub—where you can already see Claire and Tom sparking in a way that Ella won’t like—Tom’s trying to figure out what her secret with Josh is. “Is it that you’re jealous of my career?” “Yes.”
- At last Claire confesses to the abortion, and Ella sticks up for her against Tom the patriarchy. Claire sees the opportunity to flirtily tease Tom. “Yeah, I really hate how you’re always such the patriarchy, Tom.” She laughs, and somehow Ella’s the butt of the joke.
- Alan and Mae are back together! Thanks, Stuart?
- Claire: “Tom loves victims. Josh loves victims. It’s why they love each other.” Ella: “Am I a victim?” Josh: “Not yet.”
- Claire: “Look, if there was like a glory hole for kissing, I probably would have gone there, but they don’t exist, I don’t think, so I just closed my eyes and I kissed Tom instead.”
- I’m still cringing at the moment Tom calls his girlfriend out on repeating a joke. “I thought no one heard, Tom, because no one laughed.”
- “Christmas Trifle” is written by Josh Thomas and Thomas Ward and directed by Matthew Saville.
- At the ritual pulling of the Christmas crackers (Note: some or all of that grammar could be wrong. The point is two people pull apart a thing and one side gets a tissue crown inside), Alan’s really invested. Mae: “Why do you keep cheating? Why is this so important to you?”
- Mae and Alan are trying controlled crying with Grace, which means not rushing to her every time she cries. Rose says they never did that with Josh. Mae says they don’t want Grace to grow up a whingeing brat. “No offense, Josh.” “Some taken.”
- Tom: “I think whatever is easiest to think.” Yep. Pin that tweet, Tom.
- Eventually the conversation gets to Claire’s love life, and how she “made” Josh gay. Tom: “Didn’t make me gay!” Claire: “Sorry, Ella.” Ella: “You can have him back if you like.” Claire: “Heh, at this point, I’d probably consider it.” Everything comes to a screeching halt as the opposite side of the table just stares in horror. Eventually Claire and Tom diffuse the tension, making it clear they’re not in love. Claire says, “Tom isn’t in love with me.” Tom: “I’m not.” Arnold: “Well, maybe a little bit.” Josh turns to him and whispers, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Why?”
- Tom asks Josh, “How are so many guys interested in you? What do they see in you?” “Personality.” “Noooo.”