Pls Like (BBC Three) has a problem: how do you spoof the unspoofable? The quick and quick-witted mockumentary, written by and starring Liam Williams, spent two series teasing YouTubers and the like, but now, in the age of TikTok, you have to wonder how it will manage to make comedy out of something with such a rapid turnover. To spend 10 minutes on TikTok is to be bombarded with gags and jokes and memes and viral trends that either refuse to make sense as a point of principle, or only make sense if you know the galaxy of stuff that went before it.
Williams has made a smart choice here, by focusing on the influencer industry – with the emphasis on industry – as much as he does on the surreal, rapid-fire humour of the influencers themselves, although he does have plenty of fun with that, too. After the first two series, “greying millennial” Williams (the Pls Like character, not the real one) has decided to reinvent himself, moving away from documenting vlogging culture into the more demanding field of political films, with the ultimate goal of making a feature film called Squad Coals. However, there is not quite the audience he anticipated for his no doubt visceral work on John Prescott, so he attempts to figure out how he himself can become an influencer and get people to pay attention to his serious art.
It’s clever, because mocking influencers alone would have been swinging at low-hanging fruit. Instead, Williams mostly focuses on teasing himself as an outsider who thinks he is above it all, and the grim machine around it. Tim Key returns as the execrable James Wirm, owner of Beam Industries, the country’s largest influencer agency, and there’s a winningly daft political subplot involving the new minister for influencers, Mungo Slate (Graham Dickson).
The past year may have been disastrous for many, but influencers, reports Williams, are doing just fine. (That’s more than can be said for the employees of Beam Industries, who have been ruthlessly “streamlined” by Wirm.) He takes on a number of challenges to see if he is cut out to be one, including creating an elite holiday experience for young people on a budget, putting on an exhibition of influencer-inspired art, and commentating on a boxing match between two internet-famous idiots, with no previous experience of fighting that does not involve shouting follower numbers at each other.
Unlike the YouTubers, the comedy does manage to land a punch. Slate, currently experiencing a spike in public popularity known as “Mungo-mania”, is content to let influencers do whatever they like, particularly if it makes the government look as if they care about a small town somewhere that they would not like to have to visit themselves. This is, by far, the funniest joke running through Pls Like; one initiative moves five influencers to a depressed northern town (“a rubble heap of sadness and old chip fat”) for a year, during which time the food bank becomes a taco truck. It had brief shades of Williams’s other project, Ladhood, his autobiographical series about modern masculinity and its origins.
Elsewhere, Williams may claim to have moved on from “exposing the vacuous toxicity of vlogging culture”, but it’s still there to be exposed. Original YouTuber Millipede is now nearing what must be retirement age, in her late 20s, and is branching out on to different platforms while piggybacking on the careers of younger, more viral stars and increasingly niche subcultures.
If Pls Like episodes were any longer, they might outstay their welcome, but each brisk 15-minute edition is perfectly paced, and the tone never has the chance to curdle, no matter how ridiculous or absurd the focus of its spoof is. At times, more due to the past couple of years than the show itself, I was left wondering whether internet culture is beyond parody, such is the rapid rate of its evolution. During the Capitol Hill attack, for example, the memes began to appear only moments after invaders had entered the building, and long before they had left it. Occasionally, too, I had to check if the spoof influencers here were actually fake, because it no longer feels far-fetched that a cohort of TikTokkers would be sent to change the image of a struggling town. Pls Like mocks the influencers, but it also mocks the influenced, so it does – at least– offer a level playing field.