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How an American Network Saved One of TV’s Best Twentysomethings

5 minute read

Josh Thomas will be the first to say that the character he plays on his show Please Like Me — the character based on and named after himself, mind you — is something of an ass.

“He’ s unlikeable, right?” the 27-year-old Australian writer-creator says over breakfast in Manhattan one drizzly morning. “The character’s often quite annoying. I’m like, ugh!”

The second season of Please Like Me, which premieres Friday night on the year-old millennials-focused cable channel Pivot, jumps a few years ahead of where the show last left off, but Josh (the character) hasn’t changed much. Sure, he has a new baby stepsister and a hot new roommate that he’s secretly in love with, but the only notable sign of maturity is that he’s finally started flossing. Josh still says the wrong thing at the wrong time. He still makes wildly inappropriate jokes at parties. He’ll spend a whole episode neglecting his friends’ problems while trying to get them to affirm that he’s a nice person. His parents are wondering if he’ll ever get a job.

“It’s not Lost, you know what I mean?” Thomas says. “Josh wakes up and tries not to hurt anybody’s feelings for a day, pretty much. There are no big plot twists.”

But that might be one of the charms of Please Like Me, which TIME included on its list of the best new shows of 2013. Despite a jam-packed pilot that saw Josh get dumped by his girlfriend, realize he’s gay and decide to move back in with his mom after her suicide attempt, Please Like Me is one of the best shows on TV when it comes to capturing the ups and downs of twentysomething life at the sluggish pace at which it actually happens.

And it almost didn’t get a second season.

Thomas spent roughly six on-and-off years pitching and working on Please Like Me, but right before it was to premiere on the main Australian Broadcasting Corporation channel, the ABC shuffled the show over to its much smaller, younger-leaning sister channel, ABC2, for reasons Thomas says he still doesn’t totally understand. “It’s like someone breaking up with you,” he says, “and asking, ‘Why did they break up with you?’”

Though ABC2 wasn’t exactly a nail in the coffin — Thomas says his sense of humor may not have gone over well with a more mainstream audience anyway — moving to the smaller network made the already difficult process of securing public funding in Australia even more of an uphill battle. It reached the point where Thomas suggested to fans on Tumblr that the show’s future depended on whether they bought enough copies of the first-season DVD to show adequate demand.

But that all changed when Pivot, Participant Media’s fledgling cable network, swooped in to make Please Like Me one of its launch titles, and ordered a second season. (ABC2 is still involved with and airs the show.) Thomas says “they saved it”; Pivot, which briefly considered making an Americanized version, says there was never any doubt that Please Like Me was a perfect fit for their mission of socially relevant programming: Josh’s nonchalant coming out and the show’s three-dimensional portrayals of LGBT characters earned praise, as did its depictions of mental health, which becomes more of a focus in season two as Josh’s mom moves to a mental-health facility after her second suicide attempt.

“He’s laying out so many things that are private and complicated and sometimes very dark, and he does it in this incredibly honest and funny way,” says Belisa Balaban, Pivot’s executive vice president, original programming. “It’s the way I think we would all like to be on our best day, talking about our worst day.”

When it comes to the show’s millennial appeal, Balaban points out the show’s “very relatable, authentic group of friends,” — it helps that the cast includes some of Thomas’ real-life pals — but says Please Like Me‘s inclusion of family also rejects the idea that young people are narcissistically obsessed with their own generation.

“[Pivot] really liked that Josh hangs out with his parents and actually [does] what young people do instead of only showing young people hanging out with other young people on skateboards,” Thomas says.

Though Pivot is now deeply involved with the show, Thomas is grateful they’ve left his creative process untouched. During the scripting stage, Thomas said the network’s concerns had mostly been about Australian slang, like thrush — another word for a yeast infection that was the punchline to one of his jokes. “That was a very long conference call about what we could replace that with,” he says.

To make room for new cast members, Thomas relegated a number of main characters from last season to minor roles, something he says “most networks would be freaked out by,” but which Pivot didn’t fight. Of the 10 episodes he turned in, he says, four of the scripts received no network notes, a rare occurrence in television. Both Thomas and Pivot, it seems, are content with letting Josh be Josh, like him or leave him.

“I always have meetings where people are like, wanting to talk about character arc and learning lessons and I’m like, no, people don’t really learn lessons,” Thomas says. “People don’t necessarily get better. A lot of people get worse.”

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Write to Nolan Feeney at nolan.feeney@time.com