When Pivot, the brand-new U.S. cable channel for millennials, announced Australian series Please Like Me would make its North American debut in August, much was at stake for the dramedy about a 20-year-old's quarter-life crisis. After four years in development, it had struggled to find a sizeable audience Down Under, where it was rumored that its own network thought it was "too gay" for primetime.
To be fair, there are enough boy-on-boy makeouts and bare butts scattered throughout the show's six half-hour episodes to deem it considerably edgy. Yet what makes Please Like Me such a refreshing show -- and such a refreshing take on LGBT characters -- is that it really isn't "too gay" at all. Rather, it provides a welcome alternative to other shows featuring gay male characters by treating its protagonist not as a token or as a comment on stereotypes, but as a dude who happens to be into other dudes -- and that's just the kind of character American television could use.
Please Like Me is written by 26-year-old Australian comedian Josh Thomas, whose stand-up comedy serves as the basis for the semi-autobiographical series. Thomas stars as the hapless lead (also named Josh), who, over the course of the pilot, gets dumped by his girlfriend, reluctantly mediates between his divorced parents, and learns he must move home to care for his mom, fresh from the hospital after a recent suicide attempt. Plus, thanks to the awkwardly forward advances of the puzzling hunk Geoffrey, Josh realizes -- as his girlfriend warns him mid-breakup -- he's probably gay.
The show was originally set to premiere last year on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ABC1 channel before executives shuffled it over to ABC2, a smaller digital channel whose younger and hipper viewers were supposedly a better home for the show. Fans accused the ABC of banishing the series because of its gay content, and though the ABC would quickly deny the claims, even Thomas wasn't entirely convinced.
"They told me it was a compliment. I don't believe them," he told one interviewer. "I don't know if what they were saying was, 'Josh, the show is a bit shit,' or, 'Josh, the show has too much suicide and gay sex in it.' People have suggested to me that is why they did it. I would be shocked if that's why, but I also wouldn't be."
It's a shame. Please Like Me never quite took off in Australia when it debuted in February, but here, the show features one of the fresher narratives to hit TV lineups, as Josh, the character, defies a number of the television conventions created by gay characters before him. Josh's discovery of his sexuality is a major part of the show's plot, but a capital-C Coming Out moment is never forced upon him. Instead, Josh's friends and family respond to his news with matter-of-fact acknowledgments and little fanfare. "Coming out, to me, just seems so '90s, you know?" Josh tells Geoffrey in one episode. "They've seen me in school musicals. Do we really need a discussion?"
As a character, Josh neither marches the gay-rights flag into viewers' living rooms nor tackles stereotypes by reveling in their polar opposites.
That's quite the departure from Glee's Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and the now-canceled Happy Endings' Max Blum (Adam Pally), two gay characters who've earned plenty of praise (for completely different reasons), but whose big reveals to family make up key plot points.
While Kurt spent much of Glee's first season pining over straight Finn (the late Cory Monteith) -- he even sets up their single parents to get closer to his crush -- Please Like Me doesn't resort to the same cliché. Instead of chasing straight guys, Josh and his best friend Tom (played by real-life pal Thomas Ward) maintain a model bromance complete with anime-watching hangouts and dick jokes that never make Josh the butt of the joke.
Lazy gaybro Max, meanwhile, enjoys similar relationships with Happy Endings' straight guys, but his short-lived dates and flings are often significant chunks of his storylines. Please Like Me flips that script, too, by suggesting they don't need to be, especially for someone like Josh, who's probably better off without a relationship: He's comically terrified of sex, averse to Geoffrey's chiseled figure ("The muscles made me feel horrible...like I was made out of donuts"), and ambivalent toward Geoffrey's emotional intensity and desire to commit. Besides, Josh has other problems -- like helping his parents and friends get their lives together just as he's figuring out his own.
As a character, Josh neither marches the gay-rights flag into viewers' living rooms nor tackles stereotypes by reveling in their polar opposites. But while he isn't the first character to ever do so, that difference makes for some much-needed progress in recent portrayals of LGBTQ characters -- and, lately, of gay men in particular.
Vulture's Margaret Lyons declared last week that lesbians were having "the best summer ever on TV" thanks to a string of programs, including Netflix darling Orange is the New Black, The Fosters, and The Killing, that portrayed a nuanced spectrum of on-screen lesbians "from super femme to super butch, Kinsey sixes and Kinsey ones, monogamous and non-monogamous, young and old." But their male counterparts don't always have the same luck: Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris wrote in October that while America's television families are gayer than ever, depictions of gay men routinely fall into binary archetypes that play conventional stereotypes against one another. Modern Family and the now-canceled The New Normal, as Harris points out, embody this trend best: On one hand, there are the straight-er, repressed Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and David (Justin Bartha); on the other, there are their flamboyant partners, Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) and Bryan (Andrew Rannells). Please Like Me isn't the end-all, be-all model for portraying queer diversity, by any means, but it does show there's plenty of room for characters in between.
For these reasons and more, Please Like Me charmed critics, both gay and straight. One writer even compared the show's knack for finding laughs in its darkest moments to Louis C.K.'s acclaimed Louie. But while reception to Please Like Me was positive, by the end of the first season's run in Australia, its future remained unclear. ABC2 viewership never solidified enough to confirm a second season right away, and Thomas himself went so far as to suggest the fate of the show depended on how many fans bought bought the first-season DVD.
But well after hopeful chatter about a second season had dissolved, the show Pivot's president once called "Girls with a soul" found its second chance. Pivot announced it was not only picking up the show for the network's August 1 launch date, it was also signing on to produce a 10-episode second season in conjunction with the ABC, which will be filmed in Australia and likely air in both countries.
Now that it's co-parenting the series with the ABC, Pivot hopes the show's themes of growing up, mental illness, relationships, sexuality, and family will resonate with the 18-34 year-old millennials it's wooing. And maybe they'll find, as those who have already seen Please Like Me in its entirety can attest, that when you treat LGBTQ characters like three-dimensional people, it doesn't just reflect reality -- it makes for pretty good television, too.