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It never rains in Southern California, but in the Los Angeles of this season’s Better Things it pours, man, it pours.
Pamela Adlon’s FX half-hour dramedy returns this week for a fourth season that finds the show still one of the very best things on TV — but reviewing Better Things remains a reminder that so much of what the series excels at is stuff that’s consistent season-to-season and therefore doesn’t always reward a critical check-in.
AIR DATE Mar 05, 2020
Hence my reference to the rain, which dominates the six episodes sent to critics. It impacts the characters’ ability to drive. It occasionally mirrors their emotional circumstances, though this season does not appear to be particularly sad. It adds an occasional drip-drop to the soundtrack and stirs up nature in a way that occasionally interferes with the lives of the central Fox family. More than anything, though, the rain just represents a small unit of change from the norm and, under Adlon’s watchful directorial eye, those small deviations are everything, the tiny revisions in our lives and the world around us.
I could tell you some of what’s happening on Better Things this season. Sam (Adlon), having declared herself a VolCel (“voluntarily celibate”), is concentrating on work, which includes a major setback, but also a fortuitous meeting with actress Jessica Barden (Jessica Barden), who takes an unexpected interest in her career. Max (Mikey Madison) is back to living at home and working a seemingly thankless job; Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Sam are thankfully at least back to talking again; and Duke (Olivia Edward) doesn’t seem to be seeing dead people again, but there are still many episodes to come.
Better Things isn’t a show that often feels like it’s engaged in debate with viewers or critics, but I’ll note that some of this season feels like a direct response to early-season outside commentary on Frankie’s gender identity and sexuality, never approaching Very Special Episode territory. The third season had some moments of pointed industry satire with the production of Monsters in the Moonlight and, at least thus far, that’s not the direction the new season is going.
Within that plot-lite framework, most of what happens is the covering of familiar Better Things terrain as the characters dig deeper and deeper without the requirement of season-long arcs or, generally, titanic events. There are fights (a confrontation in the fourth episode, featuring more than a dozen uses of the c-word, somehow tops Duke’s parking lot meltdown from last season) and strange interactions with strangers (Lance Henriksen is particularly memorable) and awkward interactions (Max and Sam get waxed together) and Phyllis (Celia Imrie) says outrageous things. None of that seems spoiler-y, right?
The rain is one of the little things that Adlon is interested in this season, among other minor changes that her attention to detail captures, whether it’s an expanded focus on cooking or the way the camera seems to linger on the art work in the Fox home. Four seasons in, Adlon doesn’t want to depict Los Angeles as you’ve seen it before and the show can often feel like a symphony of grace notes, rather than propulsive melodies.
Adlon is so immune to the touristy side of L.A.’s charms that it’s amusing that the sixth episode sends Sam to New Orleans for a wedding and her response to a city she’s never visited before is initially purely touristic. She goes to the Acme Oyster House! She drinks while walking down Bourbon Street! Jazz! But, as ever, she finds a way to have unexpected interactions with strangers, to enjoy uninterrupted musical performances, to turn New Orleans into a sensual and tactile experience.
One of these days, Emmy voters will notice that when it comes to half-hour TV direction, the thing Adlon is doing here, week in and week out, is astonishingly attentive, empathetic and, when it wants to be, hilarious. The show is loose, but never scattershot, and Adlon’s directing confidence is equally evident in how the camera navigates around the Fox home and in how well the entire series plays to the strengths of its actors, pushing Madison, Alligood and Edward to performances exhibiting range one never would have predicted back in the first season. This is as much a reflection of auteur sensibility as FX on Hulu’s upcoming Devs, and that’s saying something.
Ultimately, that’s all a review of a new season of Better Things should be. Tease a little. Praise a lot. Don’t reveal which characters from the show’s deep well of guest stars return or hint at the in-episode surprises that are rarely of the “I can’t believe they just did that!” type, anyway. Just remind viewers that this special series is back and the pleasures of slipping back into this world — a little more rain-drenched than usual — remain.
Cast: Pamela Adlon, Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie
Showrunner-director: Pamela Adlon
Premieres: Thursday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (FX)
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