‘Please Like Me’ Creator Josh Thomas on Depicting Mental Illness and How “Suzanne” Became Geoffrey

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It seems almost like a rite of passage for a television show to have its “self-contained” episode — a variation on the traditional bottle episode that breaks the typical formula of the TV show to explore a long, isolated interaction between two characters (recall: Lena Dunham’s ping-ponging fuck-athon with Dr. Patrick Wilson, Breaking Bad’s Beckettian fly-extermination episode, Six Feet Under’s abduction episode). These episodes seem to declare a TV show’s autonomy from the trappings of what TV used to be, and what it’s to some extent still expected to be; they’re declaring that, at least for the length of an episode, they’re scrapping the format to embrace the formlessness of life. Which, it seems, is where the full awesome potential of serialized drama lies.

Australian comedian Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me (aired in America on Pivot) had one such moment this season, in an episode where Josh and his mother Rose (Debra Lawrance) — on leave from the mental home where she’s being treated for bipolar after a series of attempted suicides — take a hike. It opens with an off-key declaration of form-breaking, with Josh’s mother manically singing the theme song sans the usual background music as they traipse through the Tasmanian wilderness. At one point, Josh’s mother wades into a river. She thinks she sees a water-snake, and, chest-deep in water, has a jarring freak-out that’s humorous until her reaction grows so uncontrollably large that it becomes highly upsetting. Knowing what we know about her character, and her character’s situation — her closest friend in the mental home committed suicide a week back — dread underscores the objectively uneventful episode (one of walking, talking, and scenery).

The strange thing is that, while two characters have now died on the dramedy, and while there have been breakups and meltdowns aplenty, the usual Please Like Me episode doesn’t radiate the same unease: it rolls jauntily along like a long day spent with friends, and when bad shit goes down, which it often does, it’s clear that the show was never exploiting “bad shit” for the purpose of foreshadowing. Rather, Please Like Me tries to honor life’s unexpected commingling of sweetness, banality, and tragedy, but it’s also aware of the ways the alternation of all of these might be accelerated with characters grappling with mental illness. Further, that Josh Thomas’ gayness plays more into the “banality” and “sweetness” elements of the show, as opposed to the tragic or even dramatic ones, is a testament to the importance of what Thomas is doing with representations of queerness.

In anticipation of tonight’s Season 2 finale, I spoke on the phone with Thomas, who was at home in Melbourne, about creating his sensitive, sweet dram-com. In the background, his dog John (whose fearless self-portrayal in Please Like Me is just another reason you should watch) ceaselessly barked, lending the interview the very sense of awkwardness and charm Thomas exudes on the show.

Flavorwire: A lot of people talk about the cynicism of millennial writing, but I’ve found that on your show there’s such an emphasis on kindness between characters, and a lot of it is really about caregiving.

Josh Thomas: I think it’s just a matter of taste. Like, I just prefer to watch characters that are nice. They’re also often horrible. I try to have characters sometimes be really lovely and you think they’re heroes and then other times you’re like, “You’re such an idiot.” Because that’s what people are like… I’m not that consistent. I don’t really know on any given day how I’ll react to a party. But I think most people are usually trying their best to be nice and generally helpful, and I think the show has that, hopefully.

It’s not totally autobiographical, as you’ve said, but there are autobiographical components. Are any of the locations you’ve shot in places from your actual past? If so, was it sort of strange playing an alternate version of yourself in those places?

There was a scene in Episode 1 where mum vomits into a bag in the hospital after she’s overdosed. And it was like the second day on set, and I’d never been on a drama set before we filmed Season 1. And they built this little hospital room that looked exactly the same as the room my mum was in. It’s one of the more straight-from-my-life scenes, almost verbatim.

And that was a challenging day. That’s when I really realized that I’ve taken a super-personal thing, and sort of taken on the responsibility — not just for me, but for my family — and it’s suddenly very real. But, mostly I was just suddenly like, we need to make sure that we respect this character. And I think that’s kind of where you talk about the show having some kindness. When my mom watches the show — even though I’ve convinced her now that the character is really not her — people are going to think it’s her, and some of it is based on her. So you just have to write that character in a way that is loving, out of manners to my mother.

Both in the hiking episode [Season 2, Episode 7] and on the show in general, how do the structures — or perhaps the lacks of structure — of the particular mental illnesses that you’re dealing with inform your writing?

It’s really hard. When you’re representing mental illness, you want it to be honest. But it’s really varied. So I was getting worried. In Episode 10 there’s a panic attack, and we’re trying to figure out what happens when people have a panic attack. And actually everyone reacts differently. So as an actor, you can usually just do whatever you want, as long as it’s just sort of vague. But then I started to get nervous that people who have panic attacks would watch and say that’s not reality, or “I would never do that.” I have a friend who has [an] anxiety disorder, and he watched it and he was like, “I would never sit on the sand! I’d be terrified of getting sand on me.”

We’re trying to make sure we’re being honest, but we also want the actors to have license. Rose is on antidepressants, but antidepressants really subdue your emotional range. And that’s a really unhelpful thing for a television show. Like, we kind of needed mum to have the ability to cry. On the hike, when she gets upset, we kind of convinced the psychiatrist [who was helping with research] to tell us that that could happen, that she could be emotional on this hike, despite the antidepressants.

Please Like Me went into development when you were 19, before you’d come out or even discovered your sexual orientation. So I was wondering what issues the show would’ve tackled if you hadn’t realized you were gay. Not that it centers around gayness, but it certainly centers around desire and romantic relationships. How would that have worked when you were in a place where you knew yourself less?

It was pretty similar, actually. It was just with girls. I dated girls, back then. And funny things were happening on dates. That date in Season 1 when Josh is on an awkward date with Geoffrey was based on an actual date I had with a girl. We just swapped them out. Which I think was part of the reason why the show was quite good at not treating the gay relationships that differently — they had this structure already where Geoffrey was a girl. A lot of the story got ripped out and changed and obviously we had to put like, coming out in, and that changed a lot of it. There are a few things where it would’ve been exactly the same but with a girl. Like there’s a scene in Episode 1, that was just going to be a scene where Josh makes out with a girl and the girl was really bad and Josh leaves and it’s funny and humiliating and then Josh wakes up and feels really embarrassed and gets this awful news about his mum. And it just turned into what it was.

So did you have a whole season written before?

It was just at the beginning of development. We had episode outlines, basically. I know there’s a script lying around where Geoffrey is called Suzanne.

Suzanne!

Suzanne!

Speaking of Geoffrey, or “Suzanne,” you’ve both broken up with and killed off a couple of really amazing characters, and ones that provided a very specific energy to the show. When do you know you’re done with a character?

If you’re going to kill a character, you have to kill a character people like. People were heartbroken when we killed Aunt Peg. Death is obviously a big thing in the show, probably an extension of the fact that in the first episode someone almost kills themselves. For me, and I don’t think anybody else has this in their heads, but for me there’s this overarching thing of like, Mum might not exist. If she had just taken a few extra pills, or if something slightly different had happened, this whole world could be different. I feel like dealing with death at the end of the first season was important. You have to kill someone you love.

Geoffrey was hard [to break up with] because he’s so popular. But [Josh and Geoffrey] don’t get along. We were throwing around the idea of them being friends, but they don’t get along! That’s why their relationship isn’t working. And I don’t believe that they should or would be together. We just got rid of him because I thought it was the truth.

The Season 2 finale will air tonight on Pivot at 10:30 pm.