How Please Like Me became one of TV's most honest and devastating shows | Steph Harmon

With superb performances and fearless storylines, Josh Thomas’s series is sensitive, frank and frequently hilarious

Spoiler alert: this article recaps the season four finale of Please Like Me, which aired on Wednesday 15 December. Do not read on if you’re not up to date

Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me has quietly become one of the most surprising, honest and devastating shows on television.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been watching from the beginning. Here is a series that starred a comedian, which many expected to be a comedy – but which began with a suicide attempt from the protagonist’s mum. If you’re 20 years old, as Thomas’s lead character Josh is, what do you do with that?

Over four seasons, the series has traversed all manner of topics that other shows with bigger budgets fear to cover, and delivered them with sensitivity, nuance, frankness and frequent hilarity.

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 in the second season, many of the scenes and three of the main characters – Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), Arnold (Keegan Joyce) and Josh’s mum Rose (the brilliant Debra Lawrance) – were based in a mental health institution.

When Rose’s friend Ginger (Denise Drysdale) killed herself in the same institution, Please Like Me didn’t gloss over it. Instead, they bundled Josh and his mum off to the bush on a five-day camping trip to deal with it, and handed us one of the most affecting episodes of the entire series.

They share a tent on that trip, and each night Josh lies awake listening to the sobs that wrack his mother’s body until – hilariously, and weirdly cathartically – she farts. And for the first time, the pair have a frank conversation about the three suicide attempts that led her to this point.

“I don’t understand how you never got angry with me,” Rose says, looking out over the Australian bush dusk. “I’m so angry with Ginger.”

Josh answers slowly. “The third time you tried to kill yourself, there was a day where we didn’t know if your stomach had been pumped in time. If it had been pumped in time they assured me you would be fine. But if it hadn’t, you were going to die slowly, over two weeks.

“You’re my mum,” he says. “Imagine if I had to watch you die slowly over two weeks. Watch you kill yourself over two weeks.”

Instead, he watches her kill herself over three years.

Josh (Josh Thomas) and Rose (Debra Lawrance) and Alan (David Roberts) in season four of Please Like Me
Josh (Josh Thomas) and Rose (Debra Lawrance) and Alan (David Roberts) in season four of Please Like Me. Photograph: Kelly Gardner

The penultimate episode of series four, which may be the show’s last – its US network, Pivot, was shut down this year, and ABC did not announce a new series as part of its 2017 slate – features a scene of the type Please Like Me executes so well. There’s a teasing, fun phone call between Josh and his friends Tom (Thomas Ward) and Ella (Emily Barclay), who are eating ice cream to celebrate the fact that Ella doesn’t have cancer after all. Josh hangs up when he gets to his mother’s door, and runs through the house buoyantly, looking for her: “Hi Ma?”

He finds her lying on the floor dead, grasping a note in her hand, with his name on the envelope.

If the scene felt familiar, that’s because it was. In season one, back when Rose was on suicide watch and wasn’t picking up the phone, Josh rushes through the same house, in the same shots, to find her lying on the couch, asleep. At the end of that season, there was the same scene again – but this time she was collapsed on the kitchen floor after another attempt.

What do you do if your mum dies? What do you do if she kills herself, after repeated attempts, after you let her live alone? How much do you blame yourself, and for how long?

What do you even do without your mum?

When last week’s episode finished, I was a mess. It wasn’t just the death itself, but the way it was handled by Josh’s family and friends. In shock, his bumbling but well-meaning dad, Alan (the heartbreaking, wonderful David Roberts), drops a burrito bowl in a fast-food joint, and tries to lap it up from the floor with his fingers. When the police leave Rose’s house, Alan immediately turns to clear out the fridge. “Do you want that milk? There’s still a few days left,” he mumbles. “Smoked salmon, there’s no point wasting that.”

Josh tries to stop him, with increasing urgency. “Dad. I need you to stop clearing out the fridge,” he says, and then: “Just stop clearing out the fridge.” He’s crying so hard he can hardly breathe.

Ella (Emily Barclay) reads to Josh’s dog in season four of Please Like Me
Ella (Emily Barclay) reads to Josh’s dog in season four of Please Like Me. Photograph: Kelly Gardner

Tom and Ella, meanwhile, attempt in vain to keep it light with Josh around the dinner table; all of the show’s key emotional scenes seem to centre around food. “Tom will give you a handjob if you like,” Ella offers, but when Josh leaves to go to bed, Tom – so pathetic, hapless and irritating in season one, but trying so hard now to be a better man – crumples. “That was just the most difficult thing I’ve ever done,” he says. It’s a deeply felt performance from Ward. “I feel so useless and small.”

The line reads like a cliche, but for the character it’s perfect. Tom has always found it so difficult to communicate what he wants, to describe how he feels, to understand other people. “Why do I never notice things?” he asks in the final episode. Turning to cliches in such an overwhelming moment might be the only option.

Flopped on the living room couch, Claire (Caitlin Stacey) asks Josh what losing his mum really feels like.

“Today mostly I feel isolated because nobody cared about her as much as I did,” he says. “I get it, I get it, she’s actually not very interesting – in the scheme of the world she was an average lady. But she was a very big, very special thing to me.”

And then comes that moment of humour, to cut through the sadness like a fart in a tent: “Are you crying Claire? Stop crying, it’s gross.”

• Please Like Me season four is available to watch in full on iView

• Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78

Contributor

Steph Harmon

The GuardianTramp

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