The Opposite of Death and Diarrhea: On Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things”

On a network overflowing with jaded takes on everyday life, “Better Things” stands out as a show that’s serious about its laughs.
Film + TVReviews
The Opposite of Death and Diarrhea: On Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things”

On a network overflowing with jaded takes on everyday life, “Better Things” stands out as a show that’s serious about its laughs.

Words: Daniel Harmon

photo by Colleen Hayes/FX

September 19, 2016

BETTER THINGS “Sam/Pilot” Episode 1 (Airs Thursday, September 8, 10:00 pm/ep) — Pictured: (center-right) Pamela Adlon as Pam, Olivia Edward as Duke). CR: Colleen Hayes/FX

I’m five episodes in and all I want to do is talk about this show. That’s the first thing that needs to be said. The second thing is everything else: that Better Things is yet another cynical take on familial relationships from FX; that it may have already surpassed Louie in its artful blend of comedy and insight; that it’s as intellectually ambitious as Transparent; that it’s feminist in the bad way, by which I mean the good way, by which I mean the messy way, by which I mean it’s complicated; and that if you like watching the things, this is one of the things that you should be watching.

It starts out seeming very familiar indeed. Pamela Adlon plays Sam Fox, a drunk uncle of a mother who seems right at home on FX—at least at first. Her youngest daughter Duke throws fits over wishes not granted, her precocious middle daughter Frankie seems too smart for her own good, and her eldest daughter Max is leading exactly the kind of frivolous existence that you’d expect a pretty stereotype to lead. And there’s also an actual drunk of a grandma living across the street. Based on this description, you can almost imagine the canned laughter.

But even at its most familiar, Better Things is nowhere near as stock as it appears. The cynicism here doesn’t operate the way it does on, say, You’re the Worst (a show I certainly enjoy, it should be said). That show drives toward darkness like a goal—perhaps pointedly—whereas here, Adlon’s character, though she speaks cynically and has a cynical voice, is always looking to connect. And I take that impulse to be as sincere as the show’s dedication: “to my daughters.”

The relationships between Fox and her daughters form the spine of the show, but there is also the matter of Fox’s mother, as well as her several love interests, including most notably Lenny Kravitz as a married-but-separated mensch of a director. It’s an incredibly sweet group (despite first appearances), and it’s a pleasure to watch a family exist onscreen without the appearance of any contrived hostilities. It’s as easy to buy in to the youngest’s despair over missing out on a dress as it is to credit the middle child’s fuming over being left behind to babysit (to say nothing of Sam’s own righteous fury when confronted with a non-apology from her eldest after the latter hosts a party at home). All of this feels real. And for an ostensible comedy, and especially for a show that, like Louie, tends to open with thematically resonant episodes, that is no small accomplishment.

The show is funny, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not working up to set pieces in the way that Silicon Valley does, nor does it have the kind of gut-punch laughs that Louie specializes in—though Sam Fox does have some fantastic lines and asks some pretty good questions, too (as for instance when she asks if the side effects for a “boner-maker” drug that she’s advertising causes fears of “death AND ALSO diarrhea” or the combined fear of death and diarrhea). Instead, the stuff that really stands out to me does so in the way that observational comedy often does: it offers the thrill of recognition more than the shock of surprise. My favorite moment, leaving aside all of the more substantial stuff that I’ll address in a second, is a segment in which Sam attempts to locate a wayward fire alarm and ends up waking the entire household, enlisting the aid of the fire department, and screaming at her children. Those fire alarms will get you, man. I heard that.

Better Things offers the thrill of recognition more than the shock of surprise.

Those insights are a recurring delight of the show, but focusing too much on its ideological concerns make it sound like Seinfeld lite, which it certainly is not. It’s not Seinfeld, and it’s not You’re the Worst, and it’s not Togetherness or Married, but it does sound a lot like parts of all of those, I admit. It also has a very uncool font, it looks like a lot of other shows look (despite some evocative inter-cuts), and it has some musical choices that will send a few people scrambling for the hills, but despite all of that, there’s something here that feels completely fresh. It might be a few things, but taken together they represent something like sincerity.

It’s not like there’s no sincerity out there, of course. The Great British Baking Show is blowing the doors off of shit right now with its own pleasant brand of earnestness (“That IS a good bake!”), but Better Things seems to be sincere not because it suits its brand but because it is sincerely sincere. It’s sincere about its uncertainty: not everything means something (a piggy bank named Martin Luther King is one such example) and not everything feels fully settled (a lot of the moral questions feel more like they’re being workshopped rather than prescribed). And once again that mandate in the dedication seems telling, because although early episodes of the show focus on Sam, by the fifth episode the show’s focus has already begun to shift to show the life that her eldest daughter is also beginning to live. So although the daughters come second chronologically, they take priority in the end. Just as Sam’s exhaustion seems to testify. This is not her world. Or not entirely.

Each episode of the show has two to three moments that could easily merit several thousand words, if not a thesis, and although episode three’s use of the phrase “N***** brown” is sure to draw some discussion, along with episode four’s portrayal of smooth-as-silk discrimination, the moment that stands out to me is a very quiet speech delivered by Sam’s eldest daughter Max in episode five.

The setting is Sam’s house. She has a few friends over—drop-ins, one could imagine—and they’re relaxing now over drinks and talking about abortion. It is an earmuffs discussion if ever there was one, with no earmuffs to be found despite the presence of Duke and Max. After seeing people open up about their own darker moments (Sam has a knack for engendering such honesty), Max finds the courage to open up as well, and what follows is a monologue that sounds utterly timeworn and trite, but feels just about as real as life. That’s this show in a nutshell. It looks just about like everything else, but it bursts to life like revelations. FL