Ever since hearing about Louis C.K. and his fall from grace, I have been concerned about Pamela Adlon and the show Better Things. I only know him as the co-creator alongside Pamela, and it’s clear to anyone who’s watched Louie that it draws it’s inspirations and style from the same well. I understood him to be either the show runner or the head writer, having a pretty heavy influence on the production, so knowing that he would no longer be involved creatively, the show quite correctly distancing itself from his behavior, my fear was that when it came back it would lose the spark that made it as wonderful as it had been during the first two seasons.
I am relieved to have been so wrong.
The third season continues on without missing a beat, bringing the same charm, wit and edge that it always has. The show has found its voice through its stellar cast of strong women, and it continued to push into these characters like never before.
My mom was looking for a new show recently and I suggested Better Things to her on a whim. She had never heard of or seen any of it, but I told her what it was about and she gave it a look. I’m not sure where the show can be streamed, I believe on Hulu and within the FX/FOX ecosystem of apps, but I don’t think she has access or knows of any of them, so she settled for just recording episodes as they aired on broadcast, old or new. It was interesting to here here experience of the show because I don’t think she actually lost any value in viewing it that way. Part of the beauty of this series is that the episodes are so fragmented, you could really watch in any order and still feel the full emotional impact of what’s happening. To a large extent, you could probably watch the scenes on shuffle and not lose too much. It’s not the heavy serialized drama that has been in vogue lately, like with shows Parenthood or This Is Us (though at one point Sam (Pamela Adlon) does implore her oldest daughter for a “This Is Us” moment as she says her goodbye sending her off to college). It doesn’t build heavy storylines that fall like dominoes, nor does it overwhelm you with either love or grief, but instead sends you snapshots, ephemeral moments of this family’s day, that all add up to one experience. In one episode, we can see Sam on the set of a zombie movie, then at a school function with her youngest daughter, then cooking in her kitchen (which by the way features heavily as a backdrop to most scenes in the home and I absolutely adore as a plot device). There is no goal or major dilemma, only the feelings of here and now and how this strong mother navigates these feelings.
This season focuses on Pamela growing older and approaching 50, the last episode showing her blowing out the candles on a cake brought to her by her daughters. What we learn as the season progresses is that her father passed away at that age, so it’s definitely weighing on her mind that she’s reaching a new stage in her life. This feeling is punctuated by brief scenes with here father, acting as a ghost of himself with a heavy New York accent and a full leisure suit from the 70’s. At first, it’s not clear who this man is or why he’s talking to Sam (and Duke, the youngest daughter), but Better Things has an incredible trust in its audience to not concern itself with the why or how, but simple on the what. The season oscillates between whether he’s imagined or an actual ghost, even going so far as to having a seance to draw him out, but in the end that question is never answered. What we know for sure is that he shows up when Sam needs reassurance or guidance; it works if it’s actually his spirit lending her a helping hand from beyond, or if it’s just an excuse for this cynical introvert to talk to herself.
So often through the season, and the series in general, we’re dropped into a situation with no context or explanation. In one episode, Sam and her girlfriends are having a ladies night at the home of one of them. There’s drinking and laughing, dirty talk, and all manner of fun and leisure, only to be spoiled when the husbands and boyfriends come home from their game early to spoil the mood. Sam is upset that they’re intruding, particularly the man of their hostess who doesn’t recuse himself to his room but joins the festivities. This leads to a fight with Sam and the other women, eventually prompting her to leave. At no point that I can tell, is it made clear who this guy is to Sam, if they have a history, what her relationship is to these women, and much more importantly, none of this conflict is ever addressed again. This episode was towards the end of the season, and I kept waiting to see how they would address it or backfill that story to better understand it, but it never comes. And it shouldn’t. It was it’s own story. We know what’s important, which is how the characters react to each other. Even if we don’t know why, they do, and that’s all that matters.
Through it all, Sam navigates the pitfalls of life as a working actor and single mom. There are a few scenes highlighting simply how unglamorous it is to act, what really goes on for the 99% who aren’t stars like waiting behind ten people for a port-a-potty while the director has his own, or going on a rant about a lack of union-required safety only to have it fall on deaf ears. Sam takes stands on the things that matter but it often changes nothing. She weaves through the dynamics of being a parent at her daughter’s school and dealing with the other parents, but can barely tolerate it because everything she does is for her kids. Behind all of the commentary on modern life and the satire on parenting and acting, Better Things never loses focus on the fact that Sam is a good mom, a loving nurturing parent who only wants what’s best for her kids even when she doesn’t know how to give it to them. A lot of shows that skew darker have a tendency to make moms the bad guy, either too overbearing or simply indifferent, but Better Things keeps it’s edge without dragging Sam through the mud. She has moment’s of selfishness and failure, it would be insincere for her not to be, but for all her flaws it is unimpeachable that she is a great mother, corroborated by a fantasist monologue from Kevin Pollak’s character to Duke after Sam’s mother, Phyllis, trash talks her own daughter to her granddaughter when she’s having a bad moment at an Easter celebration (with the elderly black man she’s having an affair with, which was a pretty great bottle episode for a character that I didn’t think got as much material this season as she has in the past).
I can’t think of much that I would criticize about this work. There wasn’t a big moment that hit me like past seasons have (the funeral scene from season two, for example), but it’s not a show about big moments; it’s about the little ones. It delivers the small moments we forget about and stitches them together to give us a collage of this family and their dynamic. It’s a family full of love and complicated emotions, particularly Frankie who I think stole the show this season as the moody teenager trying to find her identity. Max, the oldest daughter, needs to find a new role beyond the college dropout which didn’t give her much to do beyond leaving and coming back. As Duke gets older, she’s coming into her own as a character which is very welcome. Pamela Adlon is undoubtedly the primary focus of the series, and she leads it well, but as it evolves I’m excited to see it shift into more of an ensemble cast where we follow the individual family members and put Sam on the outside, rather than seeing the world from her perspective. I don’t know if I’m going to shake off my fear that the best episodes are behind us for this series, but I was definitely wrong about my fears this year and am excited to be just as wrong for many years to come.