Critic's Notebook: 'Atlanta,' 'Better Things' and the Joys of Formula-Free Comedy

The exceedingly rare and precious pleasure of watching the first seasons of FX's 'Atlanta' and 'Better Things' has been in never knowing, from week to week, what the shows might turn out to be.
Quantrell D. Colbert/FX
Donald Glover of 'Atlanta.'

The last thing the egos at FX need is another story praising that network's innovation, but here we go again. Apologies.

In the '90s, NBC famously tried to convince viewers to watch summer comedy repeats with the tagline "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you." In retrospect, it's a slogan more mocked than celebrated, but it was based on sturdy principles, namely that repeats used to be an important part of the television landscape. Viewers in the pre-DVR era used to miss half the episodes in a given season, and with network TV comedies, it hardly mattered when you watched an episode. Summer? Fall? Winter? Spring? If you haven't seen it, it's new to you.

Decades later, the industry has changed, but the core point remains true. The network TV model encourages comedies to be fundamental exercises in repetition. Your typical room-written comedy that's asked to deliver 22-ish episodes per season is best served with a formula and a narrative routine that are as interchangeable as possible. You should be able to watch a Big Bang Theory, miss two or three episodes because of life's craziness and return to Big Bang Theory confident that even if you don't exactly understand why Sheldon and Amy are living together, the show is exactly the same one you left, with the same tone and the same punchline rhythms.

There are variations, and in those variations we find many of the best network sitcoms. A Parks and Recreation or 30 Rock might move forward with plotlines and might experiment with form, but no matter the episode you tune in for, you can count on consistency of characters and their motivations. And an accusation of repetition and repeatability isn't even close to an insult. That Black-ish has a reliable, repeatable family-lesson-of-the-week formula takes nothing away from the sharpness of writing and the ridiculously good cast and that Black-ish does what it does for 22 episodes each year is one of TV's great unsung accomplishments.

Cable doesn't stray too far. You might have preferences, but what's being done on a Veep or Silicon Valley really isn't all that different from a Good Place, only it's being done with fewer restrictions and without the pressure of overnight ratings.

That brings me, finally, to the newly completed first season of Atlanta and the soon-to-end first season of Better Things, which continue FX's commitment to protean comedies in which the only form is their lack of consistent form. Comfort is the straw that stirs the network comedy drink — that you'll tune into an episode able to anticipate what's coming, not necessarily as predicable, but as recognizable.

The pleasure in watching the first 20 episodes of Atlanta and Better Things this fall has been in never knowing in any week what the show might turn out to be.

Louis C.K. and Louie will deservedly get much of the credit for establishing FX's template-less template. When it premiered in 2011, Louie episodes defied classification often within themselves. In 20-ish minutes of a Louie episode, you could get five minutes of stand-up, six minutes of a strange fever dream, three minutes of family drama and an eight-minute shaggy dog story with a dirty punchline. A recapper could maybe point to a thematic throughline but maybe not. As the show progressed, Louis C.K. found that he could stretch as well as condense, so Louie could sometimes be a 90-minute flashback or a jaunt to Iraq or a six-episode romance, but it could still be a 20-minute argument between two characters. Louie laughs — I'm keeping things in present tense because even if Louis C.K. says he may not have any more stories to tell in this world, I don't believe it — at continuity, right down to recasting his ex-wife without comment.

(I would argue, without hesitation, that It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, FX's long-running comedy bedrock, has always been far more experimental than it has been credited for. Episodes take elaborate formal risks, continuity is scoffed at but then resurrected at the most unexpected of moments and don't get me started on the audacity of a series star and co-creator deciding to make himself fat for a season just because it seemed like a goofy thing to do. Louis C.K. has done many things of courage, but none can compare to Fat Mac.)

Because of FX's devotion to Louis C.K. and to his production banner, he has become the spiritual voice of the network's comedy brand, whether his name is on a show or not.

His name is on Better Things, which he co-created with frequent Louie collaborator Pamela Adlon, and I'd say his fingerprints are all over Better Things except that maybe Pamela Adlon's fingerprints were always all over Louie? Or maybe they have similar fingerprints? However you phrase it, I certainly don't want to put Louis C.K. in the role of creative captain on Better Things. This show and its perspective stem from Adlon's experiences and Adlon's mind. And the foundation is a mother — her wacky British mother next door — and her three daughters, each exuberantly dysfunctional in her own way. That's the stuff of a good sitcom but also plausibly of a conventional sitcom, full of weekly misadventures and learned life lessons. Some weeks, that's what Better Things is. Most weeks, you can't guess what it will be.

No part of Better Things follows the same map in every episode. There's always a pre-credit sting, but there are weeks it's just Adlon's Sam lugging a cooler to a sports game for 30 seconds. Last week it was a raunchy conversation between Sam and her mom (scene stealer Celia Imrie) about shifting pubic hair fashions. Episodes themselves have been equally untethered to formula. "Woman Is the Something of the Something," perhaps my favorite episode of the season, was a perfect O. Henry story couched in Hollywood satire in which maternal responsibilities and entertainment industry sexism and ageism somehow dovetailed into the oddest of happy endings. It was linear but tied in the neatest of bows. "Future Fever," possibly my other favorite episode of the season, used a series of loosely connected vignettes to turn Mikey Madison's Max from familiar petulant teen into a source of real neurotic compassion.

Sam is working steadily, but nearly every episode has found her in a different transitory gig. Her relationships have been similarly fleeting, including a great episode with Lenny Kravitz in a role so likable I suddenly was able to understand why Hollywood has been casting Lenny Kravitz in things for years despite a lack of previous evidence he could act.

The show has put together characters for Sam's daughters Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) in bits-and-pieces, but even without accumulated storylines, they've both become favorite characters.

It's a show where one episode can be an ongoing argument about Mormonism and the dangers of judgment, and the next can find Joe Walsh as himself appearing as a voice of reason. Sometimes it's funny, and sometimes episodes pass with no humor, but it's equally confident in either mode. Adlon is giving the sort of performance that ought to be present in any Emmy conversation for acting, and that's before you get to her capacity as a writer and director. I can't say for sure if we should cheer that Adlon has finally gotten this chance to be a multi-hyphenate force or if we should be wondering why she only got this chance at 50. Maybe she needed all these years to be ready to do a show this assured? Or maybe there were doors that were closed and now awesomely have been opened?

Better Things has delivered the most assured debut season for a comedy since … well … since Atlanta.

Donald Glover's Atlanta began its first season with three episodes that displayed ample potential but then closed with a stretch of seven installments that were audacious in their disregard for the reassurance that comes from a weekly network assembly line. I suspect some viewers might have wanted more continuity for the career of mixtape king Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) and the aspirations and relationships of Glover's Earn, or perhaps more regular injections of Keith Stanfield's Darius, a reasonable contender for the breakthrough comedy star of the fall. Instead, Glover and frequent director Hiro Murai messed with us and delivered:

*** "The Streisand Effect" — One of the best depictions of social media trolling ever done for TV, cut against the pure oddity of Earn watching Darius' masterful horse-trading, a B-story that also had me evoking O. Henry in its careful build and reveal.

*** "Nobody Beats the Biebs" — Black Justin Bieber represents a critique of pop music and mainstream media adulation so painful it hurt at times, while also being surreal and hilarious.

*** "Value" — Who follows up an episode like Black Bieber with an abrupt U-turn episode focusing almost exclusively on a supporting character away from the main narrative? This show. "Value" aired the same week that Better Things aired "Future Fever" and also turned a background character, Zazie Beetz' Van, into a star in 22 minutes.

*** "B.A.N." — With Glover writing and directing, Atlanta went into satire for an episode, like a Hollywood Shuffle for a new generation, with parody commercials that put Saturday Night Live to shame. This is the Atlanta episode that should be put out there for Emmy consideration.

*** "The Club" — Just your basic night at the club, with hidden rooms, projectile vomiting and an invisible car. No big deal.

*** "Juneteenth" — A good companion for several episodes in the most recent season of Survivor's Remorse and yet another one-off, this installment looked askance at the economic gap between the African-American upper middle class and our struggling main characters and will be featured in essays on appropriation for years.

*** "The Jacket" — In its finale, Atlanta was a story about a missing jacket but climaxed in a police shooting in which normalcy fueled horror. Both that police shooting and the sadly poetic ending were slices of life without sensationalism.

No one Atlanta episode fit in directly with the episode that followed. Some episodes didn't feature Paper Boi. Some left Earn out. We never got nearly enough Darius. But every episode felt like Glover carefully positioning a piece of the puzzle and assuming that audiences were willing to go along with him. Ratings have suggested that many viewers have been willing to go along with him, an encouraging thing given that the initial expectations for the series were surely based on Glover's background on Community rather than the 30 Rock or Derrick Comedy roots that probably ought to have indicated what he was all about. Glover had a moment where he could leverage his recognizability, and this is what he leveraged it on. I couldn't be happier that it succeeded, just as I'm still giddy that Zach Galifianakis (with Louis C.K. again as producer) went all-in on Baskets, which I still hope has an audience untapped and ready to discover it.

For me, we had a fall in which FXX's risk-taking and often brilliant You're the Worst was somehow the most conventional and — dare I say it — worst comedy in the FX family. And when that's the case, it's been a pretty good autumn.

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