The Maternal Serendipity of ‘Better Things’

Pamela Adlon’s excellent series is doing something other great comedies aren’t right now.
Better Things Duke
By  · Published on May 10th, 2020

I spend a lot of time worrying that Better Things will hurt me.

Pamela Adlon’s fantastic FX series, which just finished its fourth season, is by no means pain-free. The life-inspired series about a single mother raising three daughters (or possibly two daughters and a gender-nonconforming kid) has its share of emotional bumps and bruises, and the occasional throb of heartache or fury. But that’s not the type of hurt I find myself worrying about.

In the past decade, half-hour comedy-dramas with an auteurist bent have cultivated an unnerving, if meaningful, trend in tone. Talented artists create scenes that dwell in audience discomfort, stretching tension beyond expectation by setting up scenarios–often involving strangers–that seem innocent but soon curdle into something strange, dark, and at times intentionally upsetting. Donald Glover’s Atlanta, a show that frequently pulls the rug out from under audiences in new and exciting ways, opens its first episode by focusing on an encounter the series protagonists have with a stranger in a parking lot. The scene boomerangs between being funny, disorienting, and surprising, before ending, suddenly, with gunshots. In Ramy Youssef’s Ramy, an excruciatingly awkward dating app meetup lasts the majority of an episode and ends with a teenage girl getting alcohol poisoning. In the most prescient episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Hannah and a famous, recently maligned author engage in a tete-a-tete that ends with her finally trusting him, only to have him unexpectedly expose himself to her.

And of course, there’s the unignorable Louie of it all. Before the comedian verified the persistent sexual misconduct allegations against him, Louis C.K. co-created Better Things with Adlon, and she co-starred on two of his shows. Louie dwelled in discomfort. In its five-season run, the show went to darker places more often and more abruptly than any of these other series; as a controversial exploration of the id, almost every scene of Louie feels poised to cross into a place of sudden violence, perversion, or despair. For better or worse, every genre-bending comedy show led by a strong creative voice that’s come since Louie carries a bit of the series in its DNA.

Better Things Frankie Sam

So it’s no wonder that the misadventures of Sam Fox (Adlon), her mom Phyl (Celia Imrie), and her kids Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward) in Better Things can put a person on edge. A decade of edgy, confessional comedy series has ingrained us with a Pavlovian response–an anticipatory full-body tense-up–to scenes of uncertainty. 

Yet Better Things, at every possible moment, steers into the unknown with a sense of joy and an un-squashable determination to make the most of every situation. In a move that’s the polar opposite of its contemporaries, it believes in a world in which many disasters are just good stories waiting to be told, and most strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. It’s as masterful as anything else on television, yet it refuses to deliver the nasty shock that’s become par for the course among its contemporaries.

In one episode, Sam is on a plane ride that takes a frightening turn when the cockpit catches fire. Not only does the plane not crash, but a season later, she attends the wedding of a fellow passenger who she befriended during the incident. In the fourth season finale, when Sam’s having trouble getting home from a Dodger’s game with Duke and a friend, she meets a security guard who promises he’ll help her out. There’s an ultra-brief “I-hope-this-guy’s-not-a-murderer” moment, but then he hooks them up with a ride in a car that’s decked out for karaoke parties. It’s a fun night, and one that we get the sense Duke will happily remember.

The abrupt, alienating sequences that tend to pop up in 2010s auteurist TV comedies–Atlanta, Ramy, Girls, and Louie, plus other great shows like Fleabag, Bojack Horseman, and even sometimes Master of None--aren’t without purpose. Every one of these shows is groundbreaking in its own right, and some are among the best the medium has to offer. When executed well, these uncomfortable set-ups relay the message of a disjointed world, unmoored characters, and an increasingly complex real-world relationship between audiences and the stories they see on screen. But by merely existing at the same time as all these shows–maintaining its clarion philosophy of celebration and no-nonsense adaptation while executing the same level of creativity, humor, and boldness as its counterparts–Better Things does something that’s wholly original and endlessly interesting.

The Fox family doesn’t simply wander into unknown situations once or twice, either. Nearly every episode introduces a stranger, many of them the everyday workers Sam encounters while running errands. While most shows treat these people as window dressing, and some auteurist comedies treat them as an opportunity for a quick shock or cringe comedy, Adlon treats them as human beings. Sam asks everyone she meets honest questions. She shares a piece of herself with them and laughs freely and often–a distinct, wonderfully unguarded sound. These moments of serendipitous connection can seem insignificant, and it’s true that they often technically don’t lead anywhere, but they’re also one of the show’s purest pleasures.

Better Things Max Sam

There’s a simple explanation for why Better Things chooses to soothe when it could hurt. Above all else, Sam wants to be a good parent, a good mom. She wants her kids to feel safe, to gather up as many good memories as they can for when life inevitably gets harder, and to end each adventure, no matter how unlucky or emotionally fraught, on a good note. So that’s the story that Adlon chooses to tell us. Let’s be honest: it’s not just other TV shows that have taught us to expect the worst from stories about the path to womanhood. Most any woman will tell you that the big, wide world doesn’t exactly foster our trust in it. That makes Better Things all the more subtly revolutionary. Here’s Pamela Adlon, keeping it real about all the shit society throws at women, yet also showing us that if we surround ourselves with good people and approach the world with curiosity and some street smarts, we might just have a great time on this wild ride.

Better Things goes a step further in its maternal protectiveness, sometimes artistically omitting potentially harmful details from the already impressionistic–yet still very authentic–narrative. We never exactly know why Sam divorced her husband, for example, because she doesn’t want the kids to know and think worse of either of them. Breakups often happen off-screen, and some stories of the girls’ most painful adolescent moments are simply referenced in passing conversation. We’re always left with powerful feelings, but never with the potency of real-time trauma. Solemnity has its place, of course, but play and exploration triumph, even among the adults.

This era in which genre walls are paper-thin and comedy can mean almost anything has brought us a goldmine of television. There are shows that challenge us, shows that change us, and shows that blow our minds, but few shows are infused with the type of real, deep love Better Things carries in each frame.

I spend a lot of time worrying about when Better Things will hurt me, but I don’t need to. It’s safe because Sam Fox and Pamela Adlon make sure it’s safe–because, as Sam might say, that’s what moms do.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)