'Better Things': TV Review

Colleen Hayes/FX
Parent until you drop.
9/8/2016

Pamela Adlon steps out of the shadows to create a finely tuned, real and funny portrait of single motherhood.

Before attempting to get at what Better Things, the new FX comedy from Pamela Adlon (Louie) is trying to get at — which is a complicated lot — it's imperative to say this: As easy as it might be to say that Better Things is the female Louie, don't. As easy as it might be to say that Adlon is doing what Louis C.K. did, don't do that either. It's not really fair. But it's definitely really easy.

It's not even entirely inaccurate. C.K. directs the pilot and helps with some writing on different episodes. It just obscures the achievement at the center of Better Things — a burgeoning triumph for Adlon that builds on her bold imprint made on all those Louie seasons.

Better Things brings her out of the shadows with a show worthy of her talent and ambition. It might have been able to happen elsewhere, but being at FX and working with that nurturing group and C.K.'s production company (he's an executive producer, too) wisely allows her to try new things and unfurl her own flag. And of course Adlon would be the first to tell you what a great influence C.K. has been, and how integral he's been with the birth of Better Things. But being inspired by someone, being influenced by their creativity, has often in art been a curse for the other person, stamped firmly by the shorthand of our comparative culture where saying "It's like X mixed with Y" is easier than saying "It's Z."

And while falling victim to that in a review such as this is pretty easily done, Adlon deserves enormous praise for her own voice, her own individuality, her hard-won truths that shine through on Better Things. The series is ostensibly a comedy about a single mother, Sam (Adlon), who is a working actor with just enough success to make life easy for her ex, but not highly paid enough or gainfully employed enough to make raising her three daughters a breeze. It's hard work, as all parenting is — but in Sam's case, it's a seemingly never-ending crisis of raising three disparate girls of varying ages and taking care of her own mother (Celia Imrie) who lives across the street, all the while trying to make it in a business that purges women of a certain age.

So, yes, there are similarities to Louie, the groundbreaking gold-standard of the modern 30-minute comedy that's more accurately a dramedy. What Louis C.K. has done there with his working-dad-raising-two-girls conceit has been a superbly impressive examination of a distinct kind of life. He lives a public life (he is, of course, a comedian) in a profession with tons of rejection to temper any success; a career path that wades through self-loathing and doubt, much as Adlon's character Sam experiences as she auditions for acting roles, talks to her female friends about aging and wrangles three beautifully complicated daughters.

It's not easy — there are professional pitfalls and tons of personal stakes as a mother. Much like Louie reinvented some common ground (and here we continue with the direct comparisons warned about above), Better Things isn't groundbreaking when judged merely as a single-mom sitcom, but it finds its freshness in how Adlon examines it in her personal world; the stories and struggles are familiar even though they are contained within a world most people aren't part of, and she makes whatever daily struggles she faces with her family relatable.

In the pilot, the normally game-for-anything actress she plays finds a moment to draw the line at a particular scene, knowing she's got three growing daughters who are going to see it (or have it used against them) and maybe there's a better way to do it. In a later episode — one that's so searingly spot-on about the inner workings of television it ends up more sad than funny — she loses a role in the most painfully creative way you can imagine. However, she wins in the end because she gets to share time with one of her daughters who previously dropped hints about career opportunities getting in the way of being there as a mom. How Adlon makes these points in ever more original ways as Better Things rolls on gives a lot of confidence about its future.

Even after the five reviewed episodes, Better Things is still a developing work, but Adlon's distinctive voice makes it very intriguing and, even in this crowded TV universe, necessary.

The series is getting at ideas that will take some getting at — navigating the nuances of motherhood with the finely detailed personal issues of each daughter making the various storylines seem imbued with original, real truths of 2016 (and beyond). There's teen Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), whose right behind her but showing signs of being on the spectrum, and the very young Duke (Olivia Edward), who will be hard-forged into her own kind of person playing third string to the distinctively different Max and Frankie but, until then, at least provides her mother with a blindly loving welcome home every day, without the sass or growing pains of her sisters. And sometimes that's all the salve Sam needs when the world has torn her apart for much of the day.

(And yep, all the female characters in this series have names that can be construed as male; Better Things might eventually get to the point where it feels the need to comment or make note of that decision but, through five episodes, it's already filled with enough issues to keep itself busy.)

There's a dream-like scene in the series in which what looks like a homeless woman wakes Sam up sleeping in the back of the family minivan and asks if she can recycle some of the messy plastic bottles and teen detritus in the back. The two get to talking and the haggard woman tells Sam she looks worn out. "I'm tired. I call it Momstein-Barr," Sam responds. "I try to power nap when I can." The two talk about what it's like being a devoted parent and the conclusion they reach is hilariously dark and awful.

Elsewhere, Sam's professional life as an actress crosses issues everyone else in the general population encounter — particularly aging. Says Sam, wincing at plastic surgery pictures her best friend is raving about: "I want my face and neck to stop being old-looking. That's all."

It's a simple, familiar request, but one that might have more implications for Sam. Better Things is also keenly sly with short scenes. There's one where there's no sound but the dragging of a heavy cooler across concrete and grass as Sam goes to her daughter's soccer game (without her sick daughter) because she has snack duty. Another has what looks like a topless Sam pushing and grunting in close-up, the camera suggesting she's on top of some guy having sex — until it pulls back and reveals Adlon wrapped in a towel plunging the toilet.

Like FX's other exceptional new series, Atlanta, created by Donald Glover, you might get the sense watching that they're not outwardly about anything, nor have an accelerated sense of dramatic movement each week. Both just happen — the 21 or 22 minutes unfold and the story pauses until next week. There might be more traditional comedy viewers who won't like that — neither show is built on set-ups and punch lines — but the overall effect is that of a big story being told slowly; one that you want to visit each week for the small, rich amount of life's truisms that each shares.

On Better Things, Adlon's Sam isn't just trying to survive — there are plenty of frazzled moms on television. But she is holding on and doing her best and, with the grace that so few of us have, doing it without losing her shit every five or so minutes.

Part of the allure of the show is that Adlon's not going for mother of the year — she's going for some kind of modern mom trying to comprehend the frightening blitz of advancing maturity that each of her kids faces; how every day tears away some of the innocence still keenly alive in Duke but being varnished off the other two; balancing how different Frankie is (and will certainly become) with the more traditional teen-girl complexities of Max, and wondering how soon in the future Duke will make her own turn.

Single parenting is hard work. It often sucks. And the more you encourage your kids to be free-thinking individuals as Sam does (rather than blindly following orders with fear of some reprimand if they get sassy), the likelier you'll get back some defensible snark. Thoughtful kids who aren't afraid of the lash will call you on your bullshit. Trying to be a better parent than your own parents often leads to more hassle than those original parents dealt with. The do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do ethos that guided our parents is a hell of a lot easier than the more realistic and grounded approach that Sam (and by extension the writing of Adlon) gives to her daughters.

But at the same time, it's the right choice, the right way. Sam knows it. She knows that in the end — probably a lot of seasons from now — those kids will be more well-rounded, thoughtful, introspective and, with any luck, better prepared for a more complicated world than Sam/Adlon ever was.

Better Things presents Adlon's trademark hard truths, her dark comedic tones so evident on Louie prior — but it's also her coming-out series as a creator, as a skilled storyteller with a distinctive point of view all her own. You don't apprentice with Louis C.K. and not take every note you can — that would be foolish. There's so much fortune for Adlon to have that association. But as she makes her own mark with Better Things, as Aziz Ansari did on Netflix with Master of None and Glover is doing with Atlanta, give Adlon all the credit for learning how to make the framework of a workable, original, idiosyncratic series from one of the best ever. But more importantly give her credit for the distinctive sense-of-self that she poured into the rest of it. Her world is different. Better Things is trying new storylines for modern motherhood, femininity, sexual identity, aging, cultural expectations — so many intriguing parts that make the all-too-short episodes of this first season fly by. Adlon is building something insightful and funny (and sad and true, etc.) that bears watching for its own merits.

Airs: Thursdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (FX)

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