Those paying attention know that Please Like Me has quietly been showing some of the most honest, groundbreaking storylines on television in the last few years. With its careful treatment of sensitive subjects such as coming out, abortion, and mental illness, the Australian import has transcended the trappings of conventional sitcom comedy to become one of the most humane depictions of twenty-something life stateside or otherwise.
Season four of the acclaimed series (now streaming on Hulu) is no different in its awkward charm or relatability, but creator and star Josh Thomas has built on the it's-time-grow-up message of season three to deliver the series’s most affecting and bittersweet installment yet. Here, he discusses working with mental health institutions, premiering the same night as Donald Trump’s election, and bringing everything full circle.
Warning: Spoilers below for season 4.
Co.Create: At this point, how much of the show is still autobiographical? I can’t imagine you’re still pulling that much material from your life four seasons in—unless you are!
Josh Thomas: There’s always bits. And it’s never been 100% autobiographical. But there’s this fight that happens between Josh and [his boyfriend] Arnold, which is like a real fight that happened between me and my boyfriend. And usually I’m very good about running storylines by people. But I forgot, and then I got in trouble for taking a very difficult moment in our life and then spinning it into entertainment without asking for permission. Because usually, I would ask for permission, and I’m very good about it. But this one time, I just forgot that it was real life. Sometimes I forget what is my life and what is the show.
So then where do you look to for inspiration? Do you pull from your friends’ lives, or from any other shows?
No, no other shows. It’s all from my life, and then we make some stuff up.
How much of the show is a direct response to how other shows are representing—or failing to represent—subjects such as gay relationships or mental illness?
I don’t watch that many other shows. I mostly watch Cupcake Wars or The Bachelorette. I watch junk television. I don’t want to be influenced by other shows, especially if they’re good. And if they’re really good, I get really annoyed that we’re not doing that. Those stories about gayness or mental health are just my experience and then just me trying to tell that story as good as possible. It’s not like we have gay kisses to try and help gay rights. It’s just that I’m gay. I don’t really have a choice. I’m gay.
With the topic of mental illness, what measures did you take to ensure you were telling that story as authentically as possible? Did you talk to any mental health professionals?
Yeah, we did heaps. My mum is bipolar, so a lot of that I just knew. We worked with the Black Dog Institute in Australia and we interviewed a lot of people with different mental illnesses. In the hike episode [in season 2], where Josh says all his thoughts about his mum attempting suicide, it was such a weird thing because those thoughts are based on interviews I did and not my real life. It got so creepily mixed. We also worked with [the National Alliance on Mental Illness] here in America. Because when you’re doing suicide stories, you have to be really careful not to tell them in a way that makes people want to commit suicide. You don’t want to make it look like a fun idea. That’s something we always have to be conscious of, that we make it look bad. Obviously, it’s bad, but if everybody runs to this person’s aid or is really nice to this person or it seems like a good way to get attention, then it can encourage people. So we worked with NAMI and Black Dog Institute and they all have guidelines to make sure we’re not encouraging people.
So in episode 5 when Josh’s mom, Rose, commits suicide, the end scene in the morgue was pretty clinical. Was that intentional?
Yeah. I thought that that was the best way of making suicide look like a bad idea. Obviously, everyone’s going to be sad that she’s dead. But she’s being put in this cupboard, this fridge with all these other dead people. I just look at those shots and think, "Oh, you fucking idiot. You just made such a bad decision." It’s just so unglamorous.
You’ve said before that your mom sees everything you write. How did she feel about Rose’s storyline this season?
[Laughs] She felt pretty fucking weird about it. I mean, she’s pretty chill. I didn’t want her to watch it. It just seemed weird to watch me pretend to cry and imagine that she’s dead. But she watched it and she was fine. She thought it was a good episode.
In general, have you gotten better about keeping fact and fiction separate? I mean, other than that fight you had with your boyfriend.
Yeah that’s the only time I’ve ever stuffed up and gotten in trouble. I’m very considerate about it. My parents have the highest level of clearance on the scripts. They can say no to anything and I have to listen to them. But they never have. And they’ve gotten more comfortable now that the characters aren’t really them. They’ve got some things in common, but they’re not really them. They’re both pretty chill.
Were there specific storylines in past seasons that you were unsure about running past your parents?
There are so many. Anything with my mum attempting suicide is difficult, especially before the show was made. She didn’t really understand why I thought it was funny, because we were making a comedy series. And I was like, "No, it’s not going to be funny." I just didn’t really know how to explain to her the tone of the show, that we wouldn’t be making fun of the suicide. Now that she’s seen it, she gets it and they trust me. I don’t think she reads the scripts anymore.
Is the relationship stuff also weird to bring up with your parents? I mean, there’s a lot of gay sex in this season…
My mum, when she watched one of my big sex scenes in a warehouse, she says to me, "Josh, lovey, can I ask you something? You know that gay sex scene? Can gays do sex face to face?" And I said yes, and she says, "Well, that’s a nicer way of doing it." So they’re learning a lot, I guess. They love it, because I would never tell them about my life. We just weren’t that open growing up; now they know everything. I think it’s really exciting for them because every parent would like to spy on their kids’ life. And this show is the closest that they’re going to get to that.
So do you feel that you can get away with more? The fact that this season begins with such an awkward threesome, and then you have a meth smoker in one of the later episodes...are you trying to push any envelopes or are you just writing funny scenes?
We’re definitely allowed to do more stuff now. The networks trust me more. Also just in the last 4 years, people’s attitudes toward gay things have changed more than you would think. It’s crazy how different conversations about this season are, compared to the ones about season one, which only had a few kisses and people were nervous about that. Josh is also settled into being gay more, which just means he gets more sexual. He’s had two boyfriends, and this is the first time he’s been single. In season one, he was just working it all out.
Speaking of boyfriends, why did you bring [season 1 boyfriend] Geoffrey back?
I liked bringing Geoffrey back because it brings you back to the first season. You have to check in and remember how different Josh was when they first met. It’s a nice way to make the audience think about how they’ve grown up. Also, it’s Josh’s first boyfriend, so it’s fun to see how they interact with each other. And I liked having him in the episode where Mum kills herself because it brings you back to that first episode [where Josh meets Geoffrey and his mum makes her first attempt].
Were you afraid of going too dark with Rose’s suicide at the end of the season? What sort of balance did you have to strike with the show’s usual comedy but also treating it with the seriousness it deserved?
I mean, we didn’t have much comedy in that episode. That all went out the window. I was mostly worried about people being mad at me. Because sometimes people watch the show and think about the author and not what the characters are doing. Sometimes when the characters die, they’ll ask me, "What did you kill her?" But I didn’t kill her, and it’s not my fault. You don’t want to stuff it up. It’s such a big, important storyline. If you stuff it up, it’s high stakes.
You tweeted that if you’d known how the world was going to be when this season aired, you would’ve made it different. Would you have actually done anything differently, or was it necessary for the show to go where it did this season?
We premiered in Australia the night that Donald Trump was elected. That first episode just felt a bit heavy on that day. Now, I think it’s fine. But it just felt a bit like, "Ugh, I wish we’d made La La Land instead." We would’ve put John in a dress and just fed him treats. When everything is that grim, you want something uplifting. But you can’t control that.
You’ve said you don’t really like planning ahead. But if there was a season 5, what would you want to cover?
It’d be all about turning 30, I guess. They’re pretty close. People go crazy when they turn 30, so I think that’d probably be what’s happening.
How do you think Josh would react to turning 30?
I’m about to turn 30, so I’ll let you know.