In the very first episode of Josh Thomas' Australian comedy Please Like Me, the lead (played by Thomas) is dumped by his girlfriend. "Josh, you're probably gay!" she tells him. Soon enough, he's making out with an attractive boy and attempting to not make too much of this new-found realization.
Before the show can be pegged as a funny coming out story, Josh's dad calls: His mom, Rose, has been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt. Immediately, what would have been another navel-gazing show about young gay men announced itself as a deft comedy that would tackle mental illness head-on with its signature awkward sense of humor.
Rather than treat Rose's depression and suicide attempt as a mere B-level storyline that intrudes into Josh's life, Please Like Me has made the issue of mental health a central concern throughout its three-season run. It's all the more admirable given the scenario's autobiographical roots. The character Rose is modeled on Thomas's own mother, and the Australian writer-director has spoken openly about his desire to be truthful to the way people cope with depression.
As he notes in the above video interview with Pivot, he "liked the idea of a TV show doing mental health in a way that was sort of, honest and a bit true to life." The show has even partnered up with TakePart in the #SaySomething campaign to shift cultural conversation about mental illness.
Now in its third season, Thomas's show has expanded its roster of colorful characters to include Arnold (Keegan Joyce), Josh's latest love interest who lives with an anxiety disorder, and Hannah (Hannah Gadsby), a lesbian who committed herself after having a breakdown in a supermarket. Both of these characters were introduced in the show's second season as Rose moved into what Josh insisted on calling a "mental home."
"But, like, that's what it is?" he argues in the show's pilot when he's told people living at the facility don't like calling it that. Much like how Thomas' other characters seldom learn from their past mistakes, Rose and the characters she meets at the facility struggle with coming to terms with their own issues and finding successful ways of overcoming them.
Rather than present facile narratives of loving family members and strong personal relationships healing all wounds, Please Like Me understands that living with mental illness is a recurring battle, one that requires self-care and professional help as well as a strong support network. Thomas has been vocal about how if there's one thing he's learned while writing the show, it's the sheer number of ways people around the world experience mental illness.
"It's really hard. When you're representing mental illness, you want it to be honest. But it's really varied," he told Flavorwire last year. There is no singular experience to be represented. All he's hoped to do with Please Like Me is remove the stigma that surrounds it.
Thomas has been vocal about how if there's one thing he's learned while writing the show, it's the sheer number of ways people around the world experience mental illness.
In one pivotal scene in the second season's finale, we witness Arnold having a full-blown panic attack as Josh tries to talk him down. In any other show, the empathy shown by the usually goofily oblivious Josh would have been enough to attenuate Arnold's attack. Instead, the camera stays on Arnold until the attack washes itself away.
You can see in Joyce's performance that he cannot stop the panic attack even as he understands that inability is, in itself, another reason for why he's panicking. When Josh accompanies Arnold as he checks back in to the mental home, Rose jokes that (of course) all it would take was a date with her Joshy to drive Arnold right back in.
It's a funny line but the episode's underlying message is that being in a relationship with someone means being willing to be vulnerable, something people living with anxiety can find all the more terrifying.
In the third season's opener, Arnold reframes that same insecurity. "I think if people knew what actually went on my head, it'd be impossible for them to like me," he admits. His panic attacks don't define him but the show doesn't gloss over them, either.
The latest episode, where Arnold overcomes his fear of coming out to his parents after some Sia-inspired therapeutic singing, viewers are made privy to the way coping with mental illness can feel at times like a losing battle. Unhappy with the way her medication makes her emotions feel flat, Rose confesses to Hannah that she wants to go off her meds.
"I know. It's not ideal," Hannah agrees. She then perfectly sums up their struggle, "You take medication to get yourself out of a dark hole, but you end up just in a display home on an empty street." The scene ends with Hannah's confession that she's been self-harming after going off her meds herself. "It just hurts to know that I need to take pills simply to function. Really painful. I can't wait to be beige again," she says, her voice almost breaking.
Thomas' show is all the more groundbreaking for not shying away from these dark moments, which don't feel tonally at odds with an otherwise light comedy. Every episode opens with a new dance number set to "I'll Be Fine" by Clairy Browne & the Bangin' Rackettes.
Yet, that song perfectly sums up the show's outlook on its twinned concerns of relationships and mental illness. The repeated, if hesitant, "Yeah, I'll be fine" establishes one's own future well-being. It's as much an aspiration as it is a promise, suggesting Thomas is well aware that feeling "fine" is a never-ending project requiring effort and time. It's a particularly brave stance for a comedy to make and a welcome one in such an assured and funny show.