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"I really didn't want to f--- it up"
If you aren't watching Freeform's new show Everything's Gonna Be Okay, you're missing out on one of the most unique comedies on TV right now. The show follows the comic misadventures of a family led by Nick (Josh Thomas), a neurotic, gay Australian man in his 20s who becomes the guardian of his two teenage Angeleno half-sisters, Matilda (Kayla Cromer), who is on the autism spectrum, and Genevieve (Maeve Press), after their father dies. It has a lot of heart, and it has a lot of "I shouldn't be laughing at that" moments. It handles serious subject matter with a deft, light touch, which is becoming creator-writer-showrunner-star Josh Thomas' signature, as seen in the two shows he's created.
Thomas isn't a household name in America yet, but he developed a worldwide following through his first show, critically acclaimed cult hit Australian comedy Please Like Me, and moved to Los Angeles two and half years ago to work on Everything's Gonna Be Okay, which is one of the only biographical details Thomas shares with his character. Please Like Me was frequently autobiographical, but Everything's Gonna Be Okay is not. Thomas didn't have any personal experience with autism before doing the show. He does have ADHD, which he said gives him some insight into what it's like to not act how people might expect him to in social situations. "I have to, like, proactively learn how to do eye contact," he said in an interview with TV Guide during the Television Critics Association winter press tour earlier this month. "So I have a window into some of those things, but obviously it's not the same. It's like autism-adjacent."
The past few years have seen a shift in culture that places a higher value than ever on members of communities telling their own stories, and higher penalties for outsiders who get it wrong. Not having firsthand experience with autism made Thomas feel even more responsibility to portray the condition authentically. People with autism -- especially women with autism -- are underrepresented on TV. "It feels high stakes because that community deserves to have representation," Thomas said. "And I really didn't want to f--- it up because they don't get much of it." Kayla Cromer, who plays Matilda, is on the autism spectrum, and all the other characters on the spectrum are played by actors who are, too. The show has three consultants, and Thomas and his fellow writers and producers do all the research they can.
At the same time, though, the show is not comprehensively about autism, nor is it trying to speak for everyone with autism. "That's such a wide range of people, so actually to talk about it as a singular thing is insane," Thomas said. It's about Matilda and her specific characteristics and experience. "There's protection in the fact that everybody's different, that this character can be like this because there's all different types of people in the world," Thomas said. And autism is only one facet of Matilda's character, and Matilda is only one member of the show's ensemble. Everything's Gonna Be Okay is as much about being insecure around a new boyfriend as it is about autism.
Thomas said that the response from people with autism has been positive. A few months before the premiere, he screened the pilot at the Autism Society's Autfest Film Festival, which he described as "nerve-wracking."
"I so wanted their validation," he said. "I so wanted that community to watch this show and feel like we served them well, and they did. They liked it. And then from there I felt a lot more relaxed."
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Thomas has learned that as long as characters feel authentic and specific, people will relate to them and enjoy them whether or not they're young women with autism or neurotic gay men. When he was making Please Like Me, he was just in a house in a suburb of Melbourne, making a show about stuff he liked that he thought would just air on Australian TV. He didn't think about how it would play in other cultures or demographics, but now it's everywhere. "It's not in North Korea, but it's in every other country," he said.
Thomas explained that he met a girl from China who told him that it's not available on the heavily censored internet there, but they pirate it and translate it, and there are multiple translations and people have versions they prefer.
"So many countries have found things in that show that they like, which for me personally is really exciting, because I thought I was quite weird," Thomas said. "And it's like, actually, this is just human. A lot of these things are universal." So when he moved to America for Everything's Gonna Be Okay, he didn't change his sensibility to appeal to a different audience. He knew that it worked.
That being said, Thomas has found that there are certain quirks of the Australian sense of humor that he's had to tone down for Americans, who can't handle it conversationally. "Definitely day-to-day in conversation I don't treat Americans the same way I treat Australians," he said. "I don't tease them as much. I don't tease myself as much, because Americans don't like it. I don't use the C-word anymore. We like that word in Australia, but we're convicts, we don't care."
Everything's Gonna Be Okay airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on Freeform.