The likeable Josh Thomas
Amid the crush of praise for Josh Thomas’s new series, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, a curious thread emerges: viewers, particularly Australian ones, remark upon how well-lit the show looks. The colours are vibrant, one writer notes; another TV critic calls it “bittersweet and bright”.
The show’s creator guffaws down the line from Los Angeles, where he lives in Laurel Canyon. “It’s quite realistically lit, actually,” Thomas says. “To Australians it seems ‘like TV’; we see those scenes and we’re like, ‘That’s TV.’ When we were doing our tour of the potential houses to choose, the first three houses I was like, ‘Ack, it just looks like a sitcom.’ And then after a while I realised, ‘Oh no, that’s because sitcom houses are American houses.’ The houses that we had in Melbourne never had windows.”
It’s true: this isn’t the beloved Please Like Me, a show whose four seasons of bittersweet comedy were filtered through the overcast tones of Melbourne’s inner north-west (and, memorably, the Tasmanian wilderness). Look beyond the north-facing picture windows of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, however, and you’ll find the poignant and at times caustic writing that has become Thomas’s calling card.
It’s striking, then, that Thomas – who considers taking our phone call from beneath a blanket to deal with audio problems – seems to be in such a decidedly good mood. A mood so good and prolonged, in fact, that he was in no hurry to leap back into development when Please Like Me’s fourth season wrapped up to great critical acclaim in December 2016.
“I just felt, like, so happy that I’d made a TV show,” he recalls of his extended post-finale vacation. “I think people get panicked that they’re never going to get hired again; I was just thrilled that I was once hired. ‘Well, that’s good; I have money, they pay me once a year for that show, that’s cool – I don’t even have to work!’”
Thomas’s self-effacement runs deep, and it takes a while for the sly jabs – at both himself and the theatre of the press tour – to abate. I get the sense he feels a little unsure of his new-found – or, perhaps more correctly, newly revealed – sunny outlook; worried, maybe, that people will think he’s become “an LA person”. “Los Angeles feels like home, and it kinda makes me feel sick thinking that,” he’ll later offer conspiratorially.
For a writer-performer whose work has often been mined from a deep vein of personal experience, the downtime between projects wasn’t just celebratory, it was essential. “When I used to do stand-up shows once a year, I learnt from the last couple of those that were not good; I had nothing to say. They weren’t critically acclaimed. And when you’ve asked people out of the house, and have them pay you money, and pay for parking, you really need to be so good. The standards for a live show… when I quit, I was just like, ‘I’m not doing a good job of this anymore’, and I didn’t want to just slam into another show and have no opinions.”
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – which airs in the United States on cable network Freeform, and in Australia on Stan – concerns the misadventures of Nicholas (Thomas), whose holiday to LA and burgeoning romance with Alex (Adam Faison) are derailed when Nicholas’s expat father (Christopher May) announces he is dying of “a terrible cancer which I’ll give you some more information about later” (he doesn’t). Finding himself low on his father’s list of potential guardians for his half-sisters, Matilda (Kayla Cromer) and Genevieve (Maeve Press), Nicholas makes a play for the “job”, which he solemnly receives by the end of the pilot.
“It’s called Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, so I think it’s a little bit more… Nicholas is a bit sweeter,” Thomas says, comparing the character with the “Josh” he played on Please Like Me. “I think having teenage girls in a show forces you into sweeter territory; I’m not going to talk to those girls the same way Josh’s character would talk to Tom. The conceit of the show, of him taking on board this grand thing, is so sweet, so I guess the story and the characters and the situation kinda made that decision for me.”
It may be, however, that Thomas’s “sweet” is another person’s heart-rending work of gallows humour – a tonal choice that is particularly evident in Cromer’s bravura monologue in the pilot. Addressing the gathered mourners at her father’s funeral, Matilda begins, “Hello, I will be doing Dad’s eulogy. A lot of it is going to be focused on me. Dad used to get frustrated when I always made things about myself, but he is dead now: surprise!” From there, her eulogy becomes a moving testament to her late father’s parenting: Matilda is autistic, and her dad never let her feel “less than”.
At that moment, with just a few minutes to go in the pilot, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay reveals its secret weapon: the show is not so much about Nicholas but about his sisters. Alongside the wise-beyond-her-years Genevieve’s navigation of the hell of middle-school girlhood, there’s a concerted focus on Matilda’s experience as an autistic young woman.
There are precious few autistic female characters in popular media, whereas the “quirky male genius” trope is overwhelmingly present. This has a very real effect on society: people’s understanding of autism is shaped by representations they see on the screen. My own diagnosis – late, at 36 – would likely have come earlier in life had I been able to see myself reflected in works of fiction. That Cromer herself is “out” – at last year’s Freeform Summit press event, she announced, “I have learnt to trust the journey and this event is the perfect place for me to come out publicly for the first time that I’m actually on the autism spectrum” – makes Everything’s Gonna Be Okay that little bit more revolutionary.
Thomas admits to initially writing the character of Matilda in part because he felt he knew so little about autism, and hoped through writing and research to learn more. It was only during casting for the show that he recognised the opportunity for inclusive casting.
“We auditioned maybe six neurotypical girls, and I hated it, actually,” he said. “They were very good actors, but they’d go into this monotone sort of robot voice, which is a real trope – and I haven’t experienced that in real life. In real life, people on the spectrum are very vulnerable and emotional and easy to read. When faced with it, watching someone pretend to be ‘disabled’ was uncomfortable, and the girls who came in who were autistic were,” he pauses for extra emphasis, “so good.”
In fact, there was so much talent among those actors that some were cast as Matilda’s school friends – including the delightful Lillian Carrier, who plays Drea with the offbeat charm of a young Gilda Radner. Many of their experiences have helped the writers shape the characters.
Thomas, who was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder a few years ago, is aware of the sensitivities surrounding the representation of neurodiversity. But despite his own neurodivergent status, he is reticent about positioning himself as a trailblazer, and at one point in our conversation quietly chastises himself about whether to say “person with autism” (the person-first language preferred by many parents and educators, and some on the spectrum) or “autistic person” (the choice of many autistic self-advocates, including myself). His vulnerability about his position is genuine and remarkable.
“I mean, talking about autism like it’s one thing is stupid, because it’s a lot of different people,” he says. “I don’t like talking about it like I’m an authority about it, because I’m a guest [in that world], but [casting autistic actors] was so much better. After the pilot I realised we needed to have more people on the spectrum in this show, so we could show a diverse range … One of my favourite scenes is where Drea, who is autistic, is talking to Matilda, who is autistic, about what her autism is. That’s a thing that we’re trying to show, that no two people with autism are the same. It’s not my job to represent ‘autism’; it’s my job to represent Matilda and Drea and [their friend] Jeremy.
“It’s definitely something I’m nervous about, because in representing any group, people feel frustrated that they didn’t see themselves in the character. Early on, when I was researching, I saw that people would be really frustrated that [autistic characters] on TV are so ‘high-functioning’, or not representing autistic people who are nonverbal. And I get that, you know.”
Please Like Me, as it turned out, was good training for Thomas when it came to navigating the choppy waters of representation. “I got praised for having gay characters that were not like other gay characters on TV. Often they were praising the gay characters for not being that feminine – and I always kinda hated that, because I was like, what’s wrong with men being feminine, actually? Now I think if you had a feminine gay character people would applaud it, but in the ’90s, every gay character was kind of a stereotype. So people react differently according to the times and according to what they feel they’re not seeing.”
In the case of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, there’s never the sense that Matilda represents a monolithic idea of autism in the same way that, say, Rain Man came to. Rather, through her high school travails – including a notable story arc about autism and consent – we come to know and love her as a person: complex, contradictory and refreshingly free of tropes.
“I think the way I found success is to always make it about characters rather than the wider issue,” Thomas says of his approach to writing. “So, on Please Like Me you’ve got a wide variety of gay guys; on this show you’ve got a variety of autistic people. I guess with Please Like Me it was quite easy because the gay character is me, so I wasn’t going to go and start going, ‘Yass!’ And the mum character, with bipolar representation, she was based on my actual mum, so there was a truth and a specificity of character that I got gifted, and with that came a really good lesson about representation, which is not trying to ‘do representation’ but trying to make specific characters where whatever the ‘talking point’ is [when] I do press tours is not what defines the character.”
There may yet be more talking points and press tours in Thomas’s future, given he is now properly installed in LA. “I mean, if my show gets axed,” he says, “and somebody gives me a job [in Australia], I’ll come home for it.” He doesn’t know yet what the future holds for Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, though its warm critical and viewer response suggests the possibility of a second season. “It would be crazy early for me to be happy with how it went,” he adds. “I’m not unhappy, I’m just waiting.”
We talk awhile about LA, and about the curiosity many Australians have about those who choose to call it home. Thomas thinks for a moment, then offers an uncharacteristically earnest answer. “I don’t think you’re meant to like Los Angeles; this is the epiphany I had like a month ago. Everyone is always like, ‘Do you like living here?’ and what they are trying to say when they ask that question is, ‘I don’t like living here, let’s have a conversation about that.’ What I’ve realised is that the goal isn’t to like it; [I] don’t like the city, but I like my life here. I like my life, yeah.”
He pauses – perhaps looking out one of those well-lit picture windows, at another sunset over the endless grid of lights sparkling through the haze. “The weather is good.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Thomas hardy". Subscribe here.