Walking through Midtown Manhattan en route to Comic Con is like stepping through a portal to another universe -- many other universes, in fact.
While strolling there on a recent Sunday afternoon to meet Josh Thomas, the creator, writer and star of the Australian comedy series "Please Like Me," I made the following notes in my phone: "Katniss holding bow with bloody bandage around knee," "Two members of Night's Watch," "Poison Ivy," "Kid Princess Leia hanging out with Stormtrooper" and "'Game of Thrones' theme on accordion." All of these observations were made blocks away from the actual Javits Center, where hordes of costumed sci-fi devotees descend yearly for the four-day festival. By the time I reached the building, where Thomas' car dropped him off several minutes later, I couldn't turn around without seeing members of the Avengers, "Mad Max" characters, a towering Woody from "Toy Story" and that Internet star who is famous for impersonating Peter Griffin.
Thomas was only concerned with spotting one costume: Zelda. Unfortunately, the Nintendo princess had been supplanted by contemporary blockbuster fixtures. Comic Con quickly became an unlikely environment for a couple of hours with a comedian turned television star who, like me, has little to no attachment to superheroes or adults dressed as cartoon characters. It was the publicist's idea to convene there while Thomas was in New York to promote his show's third season, which premiered on Oct. 16, and I thought, "Sure, why not? At least it's a departure from a formulaic junket interview."
After traipsing through endless rows of booths -- the brands! so many brands! -- we sat down for a panel on LGBTQ representation in popular culture. Applicable, right? The 2013 pilot of "Please Like Me" finds Josh's fictional counterpart, also named Josh, being dumped by his girlfriend, who also informs him that he is gay. Across the first two seasons' 16 episodes, which resemble a less topsy-turvy version of the 20-something soul-searching on HBO's "Girls," the character endures his messy first attempts at proper romance while living with his straight best friend Tom (played by Thomas Ward, who co-writes the show and is Josh Thomas' actual longtime pal) and navigating his divorced mother's admittance to a mental hospital following her suicide attempt.
So yes, of course we were at a panel about LGBTQ representation. And, of course, the very smart participants were exclusively discussing comic-book representations, leaving Thomas and me, once again, absorbing an unfamiliar language. We bailed, instead plopping down outside the Javits Center to discuss "Please Like Me" and behold the decked-out revelers entering and exiting the building.
Chatting with the 28-year-old Thomas is quite similar to watching his "Please Like Me" character. Thomas' ever-tousled hair is complemented by wry observational chatter, an extension of a decade of stand-up experience that began in earnest when he became the youngest winner of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival's competition for emerging performers. He has no desire to return to stand-up, but he also isn't confident he has enough ideas to write a fourth season of "Please Like Me." After finishing his American press tour, Thomas and Ward are journeying to Mexico to "wander around and eat tacos and talk about some things that have happened that could go on" in Season 4. He joked that the networks -- ABC2 in Australia and Pivot in America -- might not even want to renew the show, but we can probably chalk that up to modesty: "Please Like Me" is a critical darling in both countries, and its current season was greenlit before Season 2 had even premiered.
Surrounded by the adult Halloween that is Comic Con, Thomas and I discussed the more mature Season 3. Whereas the first two rounds found Josh and company flitting through one stalled romance after the next amid the annoyances of adopting so-called adult responsibilities, our protagonist is more recently in the throes of a serious relationship with the sweet but anxious Arnold, who Josh met while visiting his mother in the hospital. In the season premiere alone, the couple cycled through an entire season's worth of relationship stages -- their first time having sex (set to the sounds of Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me"), the confusion that comes with the first "I love you," a panicked temporary breakup and a rekindling in which Arnold shows up at Josh's door with his apology scrawled across a series of cue cards that evoke that "Love Actually" scene with Keira Knightley and Andrew Lincoln.
"This season is a bit tidier," Thomas said. "We didn’t know what we were doing before. We were really just mucking around the last two times and really working it out. It feels a bit more assured, I think. They’re all a bit less awkward than they were at the beginning. I feel like Season 1 was them being a bit stupid and making bad choices, and now I just don’t think that’ll fly. Now that they’re a bit older, they have to take responsibility the choices they’re making."
I asked Thomas for his true feelings on "Love Actually," which has become one of the primo love-or-hate movies of the past two decades. He loves it so much, in fact, that he said "Please Like Me" actually contains "hundreds" of camouflaged references to the film that "nobody picks up on." The example he gave is a discussion in which Josh calls Tom his "the one," an allusion to Liam Neeson's young stepson in the movie declaring he's found his singular love. Josh accepting that his "one" might not be his platonic soulmate encompasses the show's more matured tone. ("Of course, eventually something happens, but I just wanted him to be in a happy relationship for a little while," Thomas said.)
Unlike the many showrunners who boast highfalutin theories about their characters' arcs, Thomas doesn't intend to hit certain plot beats or work toward any grand conclusions. He just wants to write authentically for the characters he's created, including Josh's determined father, whose wife has an affair in Season 3, and Hannah, his mother's droll hospital pal. The lack of exegesis is also owed to the fact that he pens the show with only two other people (Ward and Liz Doran), as opposed to American writers' rooms that sometimes comprise more than a dozen scribblers.
Thomas, in turn, may be growing up alongside Josh. When I interviewed him a year ago for Season 2, Thomas said he would never want to direct an episode. Now he's helmed Season 3's fourth installment, having filled in for the show's regular director, Matthew Saville. But by the same token, Thomas clearly isn't pining to dismiss his youthfulness too soon. He told the Sydney Morning Herald that he used One Direction and "Toy Story" dolls to create a storyboard for the episode. And the night before we met up, Thomas left his debit card in a Brooklyn ATM, where it was stolen. To top it off, Thomas' mother was flying to New York with his boyfriend's mother. The two had never met before, and by some millennial miracle, Thomas was completely unfazed. Maybe he never needed to grow up in the first place.
As our conversation came to a close, Thomas peered around the Javits Center concourse and gushed over his newfound soft spot for all the Comic Con fangirls and fanboys circling us. He remarked that he expected to mock them but has instead discovered an affinity. It's the same reaction "Please Like Me" has seen. What began as faint enthusiasm has boiled over to full-blown devotion among its small legion of fans. Whether or not that inspires Thomas to do a fourth season, he promised the end of Season 3 will be much like the process of growing up: satisfying but open-ended.
"I don’t think we would ever do a proper finale," Thomas said. "It’s not really like that. The way it finishes is fine, yeah, but we’d never do a tidy end."
"Please Like Me" airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on Pivot. The first two seasons are available on Hulu.
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