Please Like Me raised the bar for Australian TV comedy. It also tore my heart out

Benjamin Law

On paper, Josh Thomas’s Please Like Me didn’t exactly scream “LOL”.

A half-hour comedy about mental illness (anxiety, depression, bipolar), the first episode of which opened with the main character coming out as gay and the suicide attempt of his mum? Not quite your classic Australian TV comedy.

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It’s also easy to forget that when it premiered in Australia, there was so much working against the show. Broadcast during a morose period of self-defeated nostalgic bemoaning over how Australia apparently didn’t make good TV comedies any more – besides Kath & Kim or the works of Chris Lilley (another conversation for another time) – the ABC also buried Please Like Me on their second channel in a post-primetime slot. Many, including Thomas, suggested that move was ghetto-ising the show’s gay content.

Whatever. The show soon compensated with its global reach, early gushing reviews in the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly, an international Emmy nomination and non-stop industry gongs. Though thoroughly Australian, Please Like Me also became part of a wave of spiritually aligned international TV comedies – Lena Dunham’s Girls; Jill Soloway’s Transparent; Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe – in which you got the palpable sense writers had scripted episodes with as much emotional rigour as any prestige drama.

Partly inspired by Thomas’s real-life experiences of having a parent who lived with undiagnosed mental illness and suicidal ideation, Please Like Me also perfectly captured the contradictions and anxieties of white, privileged Australians in their 20s. For all the jokey bravado and antics between Josh and his mates – Tom (Thomas Ward), Ella (Emily Barclay), Claire (Caitlin Stasey), Hannah (a pre-Nanette Hannah Gadsby), and boyfriends Geoffrey (Wade Briggs) and Arnold (Keegan Joyce) – it was keenly aware that the joshing often only existed to shield real pain. Silly conversations often pivoted to the genuinely shocking. Gadsby’s deadpan, brutal contribution to a game of one-upmanship involving chocolate is still the only joke about rape that I’ve ever seen land in any scripted comedy.

Related: Josh Thomas on diversity, autism and pitching to America: 'You have to be very vocal'

But the beating heart of the ensemble cast were Josh’s parents: the loveable, flailing Alan (David Roberts) and, in a move of casting genius, Debra Lawrance, who played Rose. Best known as the archetypal mother of Australian network television, Pippa from Home and Away, Lawrance delivered in Rose another type of mother, one far more familiar to many of us: utterly delightful and thoroughly broken, and prone to near-inexplicable plunges into sorrow. Try to watch the “away” episode Scroggin’, set on a parent-child hike in Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain region, and not be moved by Thomas’s and Lawrance’s performances, of a son who can’t protect his mum, and a mother who can’t defend herself from the pain she causes.

Spoiler alert and heads up. Please Like Me’s very first episode starts with a suicide attempt; its final episodes end with its follow-through. And here the show becomes something useful: a frank and unsentimental depiction of the fallout after suicide. There is no sad soundtrack. There’s just an ordinary day and a quiet house. Josh’s best friend Tom picks up the phone with, “Whattttt’s upppppppp?”, not realising the news he’s about to receive. Alan wrestles with ordering a burrito as he deals with the call that will demolish him. Josh only cries when trying to stop his dad from cleaning the food his mum left in the fridge. Everyone scrambles for purchase with one another, but almost sinks each other in the process. Jokes only make things worse.

For an Australian TV landscape regularly punctuated by shock deaths and wiping out beloved characters for ratings, Rose’s death was properly felt. I rewatched the final season and was alarmed to find myself crying just as much as the first time I saw it, despite knowing exactly what was going to happen. It’s a bruising master cycle of television.

When you’re in a TV writers’ room you always need reference points for what your show will and won’t be. When we were developing and writing The Family Law, we held up Please Like Me as the gold standard for a comedy that could make people laugh but only after tearing their hearts out. A show that put minorities at the centre and could start important conversations without it feeling like a chore. Please Like Me didn’t just change the local TV landscape – paving the way for the likes of The Letdown and Rosehaven – but gave us a new literacy and expectation of what TV comedy could be in this country. All that, and I haven’t even mentioned that genius opening credit sequence. Or a lovely anal sex scene set to Sixpence None the Richer.

• Please Like Me is streaming on Netflix; The Family Law is streaming on SBS On Demand