I count myself among the many who regularly stumble across “Seinfeld” moments in their everyday lives, who revere the 1990s comedy of manners for putting peculiar urban customs under a microscope, who find both humor and cause for reflection in the show’s unblinking take on self-absorption and petty thinking.
The “Seinfeld” fab four — let’s say five, and throw in Larry David, who later created “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — were ruthless and malevolent. And it was those crude qualities — remember the time Jerry grabbed a marble rye from an elderly woman and ran? — that made them so hysterical. They didn’t much care whether anyone liked them.
But I want to heap praise on a comedy whose modus operandi is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “Seinfeld.” The show is called “Please Like Me,” it’s from Australia, and it airs in this country on a little-known but widely received channel called Pivot. The third season of “Please Like Me” has just begun, on Friday nights at 10, and the first two are available for free on Hulu, among other places. Watch them.
“Please Like Me” is as gentle as “Seinfeld” was brutal. Created by and starring Australian comic Josh Thomas, the show traffics in kindness — toward its small ensemble of characters and toward humanity. To fall in love with “Please Like Me” is to fall in love with a small corner on the other side of the world where compassion prevails, where honesty is admired, where Thomas’s Josh and the awkward and unhappy folks in his life inevitably find moments of grace. They’re all fairly bonkers, in their own quiet ways, but they are unerringly decent.
The premise is plain and resembles many ensemble-of-friends-in-their-20s sitcoms. Josh, a string bean of a guy with blond hair and a Tweety Bird face, is looking for love and for peace between his eccentric parents, who are divorced. He understands he’s gay in the first episode of the series, after his girlfriend tells him he is. No drama ensues. He’s an innocent, but he’s not stupid, as he would be on less heartfelt sitcoms. He’s thoroughly endearing, as are his deadpan roommate, Tom (Thomas Ward), and the random people who fall in and out of their nerdy circle.
What’s important — what gives the show’s warmth its heat — is that Thomas doesn’t create a blue-sky place where struggling 20-somethings have fabulous apartments (“Friends”) and jobs (“The Big Bang Theory”) or where family breaks always mend by the closing credits (“Modern Family,” “Blackish”). “Please Like Me” brings in the kinds of difficult situations we don’t tend to find in comedy, and it doesn’t tidy them up.
To wit: Josh’s mother, Rose, who is played with weary lovability by Debra Lawrence, is bipolar and, in the series’ first episode, tries to kill herself by overdosing on pills. The suicide material is never ha-ha funny, and yet it can be tenderly amusing, sensitive but not stiflingly so.
“I think Mum tried to kill herself,” Josh’s clueless father, Alan — played by an artfully downbeat David Roberts — whispers to Josh in the hospital waiting room.
“Ya think?” Josh says softly, with a slight shrug, in disbelief at his father’s denial but also not wanting to shatter it.
Later on in the series, continuing into the new season, Josh begins to date Arnold (Keegan Joyce), who was a fellow patient when Rose was in a psychiatric hospital. Arnold is fragile, but determined to get back to life, to come out to his parents and carry on a romance with Josh. The fits and starts of their relationship are wisely portrayed, as Arnold, and not Josh, needs to stop stigmatizing his depression. And there is a third character with mental illness. When Rose is in the psychiatric hospital, she befriends Hannah (Hannah Gadsby). In what could be a guiding principle for the entire series and the way it finds reprieve in rough situations, one of their hospital friends says, “Hannah’s depressed; open the chocolates.”
“Please Like Me” is gently groundbreaking, but not, as it might have been once upon a time, because it revolves around a gay man. The show offers a new way to portray mental illness on TV that isn’t tense drama, such as Carrie’s struggles on “Homeland,” or a twist in cop dramas such as “Monk” that turn disorders into crime-solving techniques. With its sanguine but not idealized approach to life, with its appealingly bittersweet point of view, “Please Like Me” is awfully easy to like.