The Season 3 premiere of “Better Things” is about nothing, and it’s about everything.
Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon), a mid-list actress who lives in Los Angeles, tries to squeeze into some old clothes she’s outgrown. She takes her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), off to start college in Chicago. She has a scary flight back. She arrives home at night, discovers that her mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), has had a fender-bender, and ends up, exhausted, helping her stressed-out daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood), with her homework.
There is nothing like a traditional plot arc in the episode, nor is there in most episodes of “Better Things.” And yet, as the confident new season unfolds starting Thursday on FX, you see the number of themes the premiere has casually established: aging, growing up, freedom, dependence, mortality, responsibility, the flowering and wilting of life, all at the same time.
That’s all — just human existence, the labor of love. And there is nothing on TV today that represents it better or more gorgeously.
Sam’s college trip with Max, for instance, nails the tension of parenting between the desire to hover over your kids and to push them away. Sam takes Max to a bar and urges her to seize her new life, but when Max leaves her to go out with some friends, Sam calls her back: “Wait! I want my big, life, ‘This Is Us’ milestone-moment goodbye hug!”
But “This Is Us,” this is not. Family dramas like that one often juice the proceedings with deaths and stunts and outlandish twists to compensate for the fact that they don’t have the built-in stakes of, say, a terrorism thriller. “Better Things,” a comedy rooted in slice-of-life naturalism, trusts that the little stuff is enough.
Sam is overwhelmed with little stuff. She’s the spread-too-thin filling in a generational sandwich, a single mom raising three demanding daughters and keeping a wary eye on her own mother, who has a house across the way but may not be able to live independently much longer.
Sam handles all this with a mix of free-range mothering, brash humor and improv tough love. To defuse a fight between Frankie and youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward), she orders them to “get it all out” for exactly one minute: “Say the worst things that pop into your head, anything, and then it’s over.”
They do, and Duke — a sweet, sensitive bundle of nerves — unloads such an amazing torrent of filth that they all collapse in punch-drunk laughter. This scene will be studied in parenting texts for generations.
[Read an interview with Pamela Adlon and her TV daughters.]
Sam’s parenting style bleeds over into other parts of her life. When there’s a scare on her flight, she’s the one who coaches a terrified stranger through it. On a movie set, she’s the one who speaks up to the director about the unsafe working conditions, conscious that she’s being that person — she’s acutely aware how her business treats “difficult” middle-aged women — but also that, if she doesn’t say something, no one else will.
I know, I know, nobody ordered one more freaking cable series about the lives of people in show business. But “Better Things” involves a rarely explored tier of acting life. Sam isn’t a celebrity or a struggling nobody; she’s successful enough to get recognized for her old TV roles, but not enough to get a fabulous lifestyle from it.
Adlon herself has been a don’t-I-know-you-from-something actress for years. (One character recognizes Sam from “Ching of the Mill,” a reference to Adlon’s voicing Bobby Hill on “King of the Hill.”)
In “Better Things,” she’s bloomed into an earthy, sardonic lead, a perceptive writer and a director with an intimate eye. In the season premiere, she captures Max locking eyes with a sad-faced woman in a store aisle, a tiny, haunting, unexplained moment that captures the wonder and terror in that moment of standing on the threshold of adult life.
The 12-episode season (I’ve seen eight) is the first Adlon’s made without her co-creator, Louis C.K., who left after revelations of sexual misconduct with female comedians. It’s kept its voice while taking on a structure that’s ingeniously both impressionistic and more cohesive.
The result is a series that’s small and big at the same time. The episodes play out like series of vignettes, but serial arcs build: Phyllis’s declining faculties, Sam’s battles at work, her kids’ growing and acting out and the general theme of aging. “This is normal,” a doctor cheerfully tells Sam when she reports symptoms of menopause. “You’re degenerating.”
The adjustment to Louis C.K.’s disgrace and departure is, in a way, a meta-representation of a theme of the series. Sam is repeatedly the person who, like Adlon, has to step up and fix the messes left behind by others.
Often, those others are disappointing men: The ghost of her late father (Adam Kulbersh) looms over this season, as does her ex-husband (Mather Zickel), whose unreliability is a source of stress for Duke. “Don’t worry,” Sam tells her, “I’ll hate him so you don’t have to.”
In another show, that line might be an episode-ending, cue-the-acoustic-soundtrack catharsis. Here, it’s just something Sam says while the family’s out getting burgers. Life is busy. You get your “This Is Us” moments where you can squeeze them in.
Thursday on FX
Source: Read Full Article