If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you can probably imagine the awkwardness of watching a sex scene with your parents. Now imagine watching with your mom a sex scene that stars you—and then having her follow up with some questions about what she just saw. That’s what happened earlier this year to Josh Thomas, the 28-year-old creator and star of Please Like Me, when he brought his mom to a New York screening of his show’s third season premiere. The series follows a group of twentysomething Australians fumbling through their personal and professional lives, and in that episode, Thomas’ character (also named Josh, loosely based on himself) and his boyfriend have sex for the first time.
There’s a lot you could say about the scene: that it’s part of the trend of more realistic portrayals of sex on television. (There’s no nudity, but there’s a visible condom wrapper and a brief chat about comfort and consent.) Or that the choice to play Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” in the background is a sly sendup of cheesy first-time sex scenes from pop-culture history. But Thomas’ mother had a different take-away: she didn’t realize gay people could face each other during sex.
“She was like, ‘Now I want to ask you this thing, but you’re not going to like it,’” Thomas remembers, laughing. “‘I didn’t know gay people could have sex like that!’ I was like ‘Oh yeah, they can,’ and she was like, ‘Well, that’s a lot nicer, isn’t it?’”
That’s Please Like Me in a nutshell: the show, like that exchange, finds plenty of humor in the awkward and the uncomfortable, but it also tells the kind of stories not often seen on television. Airing both on the American cable network Pivot and in Thomas’ native Australia, Please Like Me has earned praise for its nuanced portrayals of LGBT characters and its handling of storylines about mental illness. Its third season—which concludes Friday in the U.S. with back-to-back episodes—is just as fearless in its storytelling (two episodes end with surreal sing-alongs to famous pop songs) and its subject matter (one character unexpectedly gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion).
“Every episode we do something we haven’t done before,” Thomas says. “I’m really proud of that. When you’re into the 17th episode, just not making the same show you’ve already made every week is kind of hard. That’s what I’m mostly worried about this year—so much of television is just the same show every week.” TIME caught up with Thomas after profiling him last year for an update on what’s new with the show.
On coming-out storylines:
When it first premiered, Please Like Me earned acclaim for showing the kind of a gay character audiences weren’t used to encountering: Josh’s identity wasn’t defined by or in opposition to stereotypes, and his coming-out barely gave his family any pause. Yet Thomas admits to feeling bothered at times by praise that suggested these traits somehow made Josh a better or more realistic gay character, not just a welcome break from typical portrayals. Thomas says Arnold’s coming-out this season, a disaster compared to Josh’s, was a response to those reactions. “I guess I got a bit annoyed about everyone being like, ‘It’s not a big deal to come out anymore!’” Thomas says. “Well, yeah, it is for lots of people.”
On the show’s treatment of mental illness:
For Thomas, grounding the storylines for depressed and bipolar characters in reality is paramount, even if it means rejecting the typical narrative arc of mental illness on television. His characters don’t magically get better or worse as the season progresses, and in fact, some of them are still dealing with the same struggles from a season or two ago. “It’s hard thing, depression on TV—when someone gets sad, you want to show a reason why they got sad or happy, but there’s sort of no reason sometimes,” Thomas says of characters like Hannah, played somberly by comedian Hannah Gadsby, who this season struggled with self-harm and ambivalence about her medication. “We’re just trying to do what we think would happen, to think [about] what they would do.”
On a character’s decision to have an abortion
Thomas says one storyline did give him some trepidation this season: Josh’s friend Claire (played by the delightful Caitlin Stasey) confides to him that she’s pregnant and needs him to accompany her to an abortion clinic. “I’m a gay man—abortion doesn’t come up every often,” Thomas says. “But I have a few female friends who really wanted me to do an abortion storyline and were frustrated that it’s not on television more. I really wanted to do it, but I was scared because it wasn’t something I had experienced.”
Honest depictions of abortions on screen are few and far between, so Thomas spent hours researching and talking to to women about their experiences in order to do the character justice—and ended up finding some humor along the way. (Mostly at his character’s expense—Josh is not the kind of friend you want to take care of you after such a procedure.) “When you look at the statistics of the amount of girls who have had abortions—I think it’s one in three [by age 45]—they’re really high, higher than you’d expect,” Thomas says. “I started asking girls about it, and so many of them started telling me about their abortion. [Yet] it’s never on television.”
On the show’s unconventional use of music:
Halfway through the season, Josh and his roommates spend an episode debating whether or not to kill and eat for dinner one of their pet chickens named Adele (yes, after the singer), who they mistakenly thought was a hen but who actually grew up to be a loudly crowing rooster. The episode ends with the characters gathered around the kitchen table, belting out Adele’s “Someone Like You” in tribute—a surprisingly moving conclusion for an episode with such seemingly low stakes.
“It sounds like a real s— idea, right?” Thomas says of the plot summary. But his vision for Please Like Me, which he first started developing at age 20, is rarely questioned at this point. “Most people working on the show just get worried if they’re going to be able to get the rights to an Adele song,” he says. “Now everyone trusts the idea if I tell them it’s good. I’ve just worn everyone down over time. [I say] ‘Let’s kill the chicken and sing Adele,’ and they’ll just let me do it.”
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