4 out of 5
Created by: Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K.
covers season 1
But although C.K.’s presence is noted, this isn’t simply the next season of Louie; this is absolutely Adlon’s show, and learns from or perhaps purposefully diverges from that other show’s occasional peachiness and woe-is-me taint. Better Things, from out of the gate, is thus better at – moreso even than Atlanta, the other FX show running at the same time with a similar vibe – blurring the line between drama and comedy, all without having to dip into magical realism or too clearly isolating the events of each episode. This isn’t to disparage that approach (which is more a comment some at Atlanta), but I think its inclusion can sully the dramatic elements if you’re not careful, and Adlon / Better Things remain on the razor’s edge of real life on the show. You very much believe in a woman like Fox living the life she does, with the daughters she has.
And maybe her inadvertently racist, likes-to-be-in-the-nude, always-inconveniencing next door neighbor and mother is the Kramer of the show, the absurdist comic relief, but here the series takes steps to get us to see and appreciate the relationship: Yes, Sam hates this woman as we all hate our mothers, but there’s a fallback to her for advice or solace, as much as Sam may regret it, and it’s a wonderful parallel for considering Sam’s relationship with her daughters, as well as their relationships with their grandmother. Elsewise we occasionally check in with Sam’s small circle of friends, or her agent, or see her moment-by-moment interactions with various men, or her attempts to bond with and manage her kids.
Speaking of whom: Their performances might be make or break for many, especially Max (Mikey Madison), whose constant big-eyed OMG look and warbling escalations of the most minor events are teetg-clenchingly annoying to watch. And maybe middle-daughter Frankie’s (Hannah Alligood) flippant ignorance of her mother’s say-so on things will drive you up the wall, and maybe Sam’s seeming hands-off approach to censoring her youngest, Duke (Olivia Edward) will rankle your parent genes. But: I have seen all of these girls before, and Max, as much as I wouldn’t be able to be related to her in real life without strangling her, is as real as they come, and again, in each case, the show takes time to display how these aren’t caricatures, and how they exist in Sam’s world beyond just being related to her.
So this all sounds pretty glowing. There’s a star missing, though? Better Things does manage to skate by without having a focus per episode, not even a central crisis, necessarily. I mention that the episodes aren’t held in isolation, and compared it to Atlanta, but I should clarify that some: Atlanta has an ongoing narrative behind its ten episodes, and so its timeline and character interactions lose value by the way it drops in and out of that narrative. Better Things doesn’t worry about that so much; the episodes really could be shown in any order. At the same time, the unspoken-to timeline actually feels tighter: You feel like you’re watching a couple weeks worth of days, and not some unspecified stretch of time. Personalities and motivations link up from day to day. That being said, I realized this set up unfortunately underwhelmed some of the important progresses slipped into events. People don’t naturally have revelations after experiencing something; it comes with time. That’s a very subtle, real-world approach, and it’s hard to determine its pay-off in a single season. So, that fifth star may prove to be a place-holder, re-earned by future seasons. But for now it’s withheld simply as a note of caution: Will Better Things err toward comedy, or will it deal some of the cards it stacked into its deck?
Either way, I’m perfectly happy to show up next season to find out.