When FX’s Better Things debuted in 2016, it was a chance for Pamela Adlon to be the latest creative force to play in her own space, to allow her vision and perspective to leave its mark, as co-creator Louis C.K did before her with Louie (where Adlon was the co-star) and as the likes of Donald Glover (Atlanta), Aziz Ansari (Master of None) and Tig Notaro (One Mississippi) would do as well. Television was letting comedians go to dark places that also happened to be hilarious, sometimes painfully so, but always with more nuance and feeling than a traditional sitcom would allow.
That first season of Better Things was just an inkling of what was to come. The second season was even better, Adlon’s voice growing, her directorial sense allowed to crystallize (she directed the the first-season finale, then all of the second season), her control of the narrative landing the series a firm spot as one of television’s finest. The show was both funny and insightful, touching and ridiculously blunt as a feminist story about a woman, Sam (Adlon), raising three distinctly different daughters: oldest Max (Mikey Madison), middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and youngest Duke (Olivia Edward).
Of course pretty much everybody knows what happened at that point — C.K., who had written a lot of the episodes on Better Things and whom Adlon was great friends with for years, imploded in his #MeToo moment and is no longer involved with the show (but is still credited onscreen as co-creator). It would be easy, but also too simplistic, to say this has had a major impact on season three of Better Things, mostly because it would undervalue Adlon’s previous influence on her own show; even when C.K. wrote episodes, they were always filtered through Adlon’s worldview, less solo-C.K. creations and more the result of shared concerns and senses of what’s funny or painful or real from two people who collaborated closely for many years. C.K. was and is a great writer, which is separate from the fact that his penis got him in a lot of deserved trouble, but his work on Better Things was always about Adlon in particular (and life in general); her influence on those episodes is undeniable.
That’s why there’s absolutely zero shock that season three of Better Things continues to be exceptionally great without him — precisely because this is Adlon’s experience and POV via a TV show that mirrors aspects of her own life and conveys what she fearlessly wants to put out in the world about being a woman, being a mother, being a daughter. And all of that is keenly evident in this new season, with even more development of her directorial skills (like last season, she helmed all the episodes, but has also hired a team of writers). Adlon’s stylistic flourishes are less on the Sam Esmail part of the spectrum and more naturalistic and impressionistic, evidence of a belief (shared with C.K., and others who had little to no interest in following TV protocol) that a camera momentarily fixated on normal things — nondescript Los Angeles one-story buildings in the foreground, smoggy hills in the distance, etc. — conveys more about the moment than some overly orchestrated composition.
In season three, Adlon is getting involved ever more deeply in the evolution of life; in how her own body is changing, in some ways expanding, in others “deteriorating,” with the coming onset of menopause; in the pursuit of her own body’s joy; in what sexual attraction looks like; and in how it’s validating — particularly in Hollywood, where beauty tends to be associated only with young and thin bodies — to be wanted when you wonder (out loud, of course, in Sam’s case) if you are still desirable.
Elsewhere, Better Things portrays the aging of Sam’s daughter, as Max is off to school in Chicago; Frankie’s hitting puberty hard in her early teens and, as the middle child already saddled with her own doubts, dealing with where she fits in the family and the outside world; and finally Duke, still in elementary school but, as the youngest member of a very outspoken clan, wise and salty beyond her years, as is evident in one hilarious scene where Sam allows Frankie and Duke to yell at each other and say anything they want no matter how mean for one minute — an opportunity that Duke takes to its hilarious, shocking fullest.
And there’s the ongoing story of Phil (the wonderful Celia Imrie), Sam’s mother, whose decreasing mental aptitude is heartbreaking and funny even when you don’t want it to be the latter, which, of course, gives it more resonance.
The series is also bolstered by truly excellent supporting performances, like Diedrich Bader as Sam’s gay best friend and essential helper and confidant; Kevin Pollak as Sam’s brother; and several of Sam’s female friends who help her get through life even when, from the outside, Sam seems to want no help and we, as the audience, trust that she can weather whatever storm she finds herself in. (The new season also features Sharon Stone and Matthew Broderick.)
For season three, again, that storm is personal and physical transformation — so much of it is too special to spoil. Just know that there seems to be literally nothing Adlon won’t do that puts her in an unflattering light if it makes a point, spotlights a truth that TV has shied away from (particularly with women) or is just so damned visually funny it needs to be done. She is, as always, a treasure.
There are parts that don’t work quite as well — Max has always been whiny and annoying and entitled, and that doesn’t really end when she goes to college. Parents at Duke’s school are played for comic relief by being more monstrous than believable, but then again maybe it’s an L.A. thing. Also a visual conceit where Sam — and Duke — see Sam’s dead father just doesn’t seem justified, at least not thematically.
But Better Things, which can be boiled down to a series of small moments in life, vignettes of truth, humor and pain, otherwise continues its greatness. Talk less about the subtractions from this show than its continued excellence, which is and always has stemmed from Adlon’s vision.
Cast: Pamela Adlon, Mikey Madison, Hanna Alligood, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie, Diedrich Bader, Alysia Reiner, Matthew Glave, Kevin Pollak
Written by: Pamela Adlon, Sarah Gubbins, Joe Hortua, Ira Parker
Directed by: Pamela Adlon
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)