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Australian comedy Please Like Me closes out a stellar season with suffocating honesty

Josh Thomas's series has become one of the most intimate shows on TV.

Josh (Josh Thomas) and his boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) talk out some pressing shit.
Josh (Josh Thomas) and his boyfriend Arnold (Keegan Joyce) talk out some pressing shit.
Pivot

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 6 through December 12 is "Champagne/Christmas Trifle," the two-part third season finale of Please Like Me.

Two couples and a fidgety woman glance at each other with increasing tension. They're gathered together in a glass vestibule on a slowly rotating wheel, the city stretching out underneath them, but they're still nowhere near the bottom. They're stuck together for however long they're stuck together, and right now, it totally sucks.

"Okay," one finally says, "maybe this wasn't my best idea."

"You said that already," another counters, tired.

"I know," she replies. "But no one laughed the first time."

It's too bad she couldn't see me, then, because I was laughing the whole time.

Please Like Me is an Australian import that airs on Pivot in the United States. From creator and star Josh Thomas, Please Like Me is a straightforward gem of a show. While it began with Thomas's character (also named Josh) coming to grips with his homosexuality as his mother (Debra Lawrance) did the same with her bipolar disorder, the series quickly settled an easy rhythm that's both confident and deeply caring, quirky and hilarious, even as it finds a way to bruise.

Please Like Me's greatest asset is an immediate and distinctive voice

Josh didn't have the best Christmas.
Pivot

As a writer, Thomas finds delight in those tossed-off lines that are often weirder, and funnier, than the main conversation at hand. He lets his characters joke and ramble in a way that lets you know they're comfortable with each other — maybe too comfortable, really.

Josh lives with his best friend Tom (Thomas Ward), whose hangdog expression follows him through every one of his (many) social miscalculations. In this third season, Josh's relationship with the anxious Arnold (Keegan Joyce) has gotten more serious. Meanwhile, Josh's ex-girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) came back to Australia after trying, and failing, to find herself in Germany. She also has a complicated history with Tom, who is now trying his best to be good for Ella (Emily Barclay). All the while, Josh's divorced parents are off on their own paths. His father, Alan (David Roberts), is struggling to keep his relationship with Mae (Renee Lim) afloat, while his mother, Rose, is just doing her best to keep herself afloat.

Which is all to say: By the end of this third season, everyone on Please Like Me is inextricably, begrudgingly, and yet happily wrapped up in each other's business.

In "Champagne," the first half of the two-part finale, Thomas and Ward's script puts the core cast's bond to the test by trapping them in that glass vestibule on one of their most fraught days to date. Josh has just revealed to Arnold that not only did he take advantage of their open relationship, but his one-night stand is now calling him from the hospital before life-threatening surgery. Ella has just realized that Tom was (is?) in love with Claire, who in turn is trying to move past her recent abortion as privately as she can.

So, no, suggesting that they all go get stuck in an enclosed space for who knows how long might not have been the best idea. But it is beautiful, thanks to the meticulous script and direction from Matthew Saville, the show's consummate director. Saville's wide shots and blanched palette immediately make Please Like Me distinctive from so many other shows, creating a world that looks like ours, but with a little extra magic. With Thomas and Saville at the helm, Please Like Me has emerged as one the most offbeat and genuine comedies on television.

"Champagne" doesn't spend quite all its time in that vestibule, and so it's not technically a bottle episode (an episode that takes place entirely in a single space). But in terms of storytelling, these claustrophobic scenes prove the power of just letting the characters fly at each other — that is, if the characters are well-defined enough to make interactions interesting in real time.

The push and pull of conflicts in "Champagne" perfectly encapsulates just how good Please Like Me is at letting its cast and characters bounce off each other in a way that feels wholly realistic. As Josh, Tom, Arnold, Claire, and Ella alternately lash out and support each other, "Champagne" shows the best of Please Like Me's ability to dig into pain in a sincere and hilarious way.

Though Please Like Me often grapples with intensely personal problems, it never gets preachy or self-satisfied

Tom, Claire, Josh, Arnold, and Ella.

While there is plenty of 20-something dissatisfaction fueling conflicts, Please Like Me has always tackled the deeper, darker, relentlessly realistic reasons lurking beneath.

Earlier this season, Claire ended her pregnancy. It really was as straightforward as that; she got Josh to go with her to the clinic, procured a pill, and took a couple days at home to go through with the procedure and let her body recover from the forced miscarriage. It's one of the most practical depictions of abortion I've ever seen onscreen, helped tremendously by Stasey and Thomas's lovely, understated chemistry. The genuine care Josh takes to make Claire feel better, never condescending or overriding her complicated feelings, makes "Coq au Vin" one of the year's most touching episodes of television.

In "Champagne," Josh spends much of his time in the vestibule talking Arnold down, such is his terrible anxiety. Together, they get Arnold to avoid the oncoming panic attack in a way that proves they know each other better than ever. In "Christmas Trifle," though, Arnold goes down another spiral that proves much harder to recover from than either he or Josh expected.

See, Arnold's anxiety isn't a mere inconvenience. It's debilitating to the point that he frequently checks himself into a rehabilitation center — which is where he met Josh's mother and, by association, Josh.

Rose's struggle to both accept and overcome her bipolar disorder has been a point since the very first episode, wherein she tried to kill herself with pills and Bailey's. She can be anything from despondent to delirious, self-defeating to relentlessly upbeat. Josh takes care of his mother — like he always has — even though he can't quite wrap his head around her illness. In "Christmas Trifle," her determined mania contrasts directly with the deadpan self-loathing of Hannah, her friend and fellow rehab mate, who sits at the head of the table with a paper crown on her head and a resigned frown resting on her face.

Please Like Me excels at specificity, which always makes for more thoughtful television. It never treats mental illness in broad strokes; it knows there are so many ways the mind can fight back against you that just saying someone's "crazy" could never paint an accurate or fair picture. And so Arnold's illness is different from Rose's illness, and both are vastly different from Hannah's illness. By creating such finely drawn distinctions, Please Like Me gets to play with far more diverse and fascinating characters than if it treated everyone the same.

"Christmas" isn't quite as strong as "Champagne," but it uses Please Like Me's increasingly complicated web to bring out all the unsaid that had been scratching at the corners of the entire third season. When Arnold's anxiety gets so pressing that he has to leave, Josh, who has always been the constant connection between all the characters, finally snaps and tells everyone off. Tellingly, he reaches this breaking point at the Christmas dinner he prepared for them all. Josh has always been the one to take care of everyone else, but at this moment, he's too tired of holding them all up to stay standing.

Everyone on Please Like Me cares about each other so much that sometimes they don't know what to do with all of their feelings. They tease each other to death, but their mockery comes from affection, first and foremost. Their shared barbs, insecurities, and senses of humor create co-dependencies, which can either soothe or fracture the group depending on the day. But this intimacy, for better or for worse, is exactly what makes Please Like Me so good.

The first two seasons of Please Like Me are available on Hulu.