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Making an autobiographical TV show can be dangerous for your personal relationships — but Australian comedian Josh Thomas has managed to use everything from his parents’ divorce to his mother’s struggles with mental health issues on Pivot’s Please Like Me, all while keeping the family peace.
Please Like Me has earned praise from GLAAD and mental health professionals for tackling serious issues in a realistic yet entertaining way. In real life, Thomas’ mother struggles with manic depression, which is why he wanted to address the topic on the show.
Friday’s episode contains perhaps the most visceral example, with Josh and his mother (Debra Lawrance) going on a camping trip after her friend commits suicide. She cries hysterically in the middle of the night but in the morning seems cheery (see the clip above).
Thomas says portraying depression in a realistic way can be particularly tough from a storytelling perspective, because people suffering from it tend to be inactive at their lowest points.
“You want to show that they’re depressed, but they are actually just lying down. That’s not a good TV show,” he says. “But when it happened to my mom, I was like, ‘This is a good thing for people to get a practice experiencing.’ You will probably meet somebody who has attempted suicide, and it’s hard to understand. We did a lot of research. I take that seriously.”
Pivot brought Please Like Me to America for season one and boarded the show as a co-producer for season two. Part of the network’s mandate is to create shows that have a social action component. In Please Like Me‘s case, that has involved Thomas going to Washington, D.C., to speak about mental health issues.
“This show beautifully and organically tackles a wide range of issues — some of which could be really heavy — and does it in such a personal and idiosyncratic way,” says Belisa Balaban, Pivot’s head of original programming.
During a visit to Washington earlier this month, Thomas attended an event hosted by Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) where he shared his take on the mental health issues.
“What Josh brought was a lot of comedy to the room, but also personal stories, and really opened it up in a way so people could ask the hard questions, because this is such a challenging topic for a lot of folks,” says Alden Stoner, svp social action campaigns and programming at Pivot.
Thomas says his mother has grown to appreciate Please Like Me, and watches it with his sister.
“She is like, ‘Is that what I’m like?’ ” he says. “A lot of the character is fake. There are some things that are true, but she doesn’t ever really believe me.”
Thomas’ mother started liking the show more after her sister’s psychiatrist endorsed it, saying it was particularly kind to the mother character.
“My mom called me and said, ‘It’s nice to me, isn’t it?’ ” Thomas recalls.
As for Friday’s episode centering on Josh and mum, Thomas’ mother loved it.
“She really liked reading it,” he says. ” It was like, ‘Finally, I have 25 minutes of television to myself, talking about issues.’ “
Though the show hasn’t made him an ultra-recognizable face in Australia, a recent telecommunications commercial has. The TV spot has people yelling “Yes!” (the ad’s catchphrase) at him in the streets, so Thomas retreated to Los Angeles to write the show’s third season.
“Bad things have to happen. You have to ruin things that people like. That’s how you make drama,” he says of what’s next for the show.
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