At the center of many great TV comedies is a well-defined and sharpened point of view, and a show creator's perspective is often best displayed when that person is also the star. FX, which has given us fitting series like Jim Jefferies' Legit and Donald Glover's recent magnum opus Atlanta, is arguably best represented in this respect by comedian Louis C.K., who teamed with frequent collaborator Pamela Adlon in creating Better Things, one of the most hilariously candid and unflinching comedies of this or any other TV season.
His own series' future up in the air, Louis C.K. does not craft an onscreen presence here, and Pamela Adlon capitalizes on a long overdue leading role. (She was C.K.'s co-lead in HBO's sitcom Lucky Louie, but this is on another level.) With Better Things, Adlon continues to prove herself a gifted and captivating actress by playing, get this, a gifted and captivating actress named Sam Fox who is constantly in the middle of juggling her fluctuating career and her duties as the mother of three daughters who seem to thrive on making her rue each of their conceptions.
While men do have roles in this show, Better Things is all about that female power, even when it's just about the power to get through the day without tearing anyone's head off their shoulders. (If, by chance, you think the concept of a series centered on a working mother sounds stereotypical, try to come up with a respectable assortment of examples.) To that end, Sam is such an effective character as strengthened by Adlon's utter genuineness every second she's on the screen. One would imagine this is how the real actress would complain about a deadbeat ex-husband, or how she would react to having a daughter walking in as she unsuccessfully tries to find porn. Partly based on Adlon's own life, Better Things is like Louie in making hysterical mountains out of life's menial and gnawing molehills, and one sympathizes with Sam every time one of her daughters begins to speak. Because rarely does anything good come from it.
Yes, this is not a show that poses children as God's special creatures, though I suppose the youngest sister Duke (Olivia Edward) isn't necessarily the bane of anyone's existence yet. (But wait until puberty.) On the other hand, Sam's aggro tendencies shine through both her daughters. The angst-ridden mid-teenager Max (Mikey Madison) is the kind of person who slams her mother for not finding her weed or supporting her sexual awakening, both nightmare scenarios for parents. Then there's the preteen Frankie, who is also at the center of her own universe, and it's one in which Sam is a constant embarrassment. And Better Things shies away from neither the bursts of aggravation intrinsic to parenting nor the glee in knowing few things are worse to adolescents than embarrassment. (One early episode features an awkward highlight scene involving Sam giving a speech in a school.)
All three generations of Fox women are accounted for in Better Things, with British actress Celia Imrie starring as Sam's mother Phillis, Phil for short. She lives across the street from her daughter and granddaughters, and while Phil's relationship with Sam feels the familiar strains from both real-life and TV parent-child pairings, their friendship is quite lovely and relatable for this writer. (At least with a mother-son relationship, as I can't relate to being anyone's daughter, for better or worse for society.)
Even though her kids are always on her mind - especially after situations as extreme as those where they may or may not have completely destroyed the house - Sam does get away from them. While many shows featuring the acting craft will send up celebrities and take shots at the filmmaking industry, Adlon keeps the understated tone going here as well, mirroring Hollywood's faults without hyperbole. So when the show takes aim in that way, such as when Lenny Kravitz shows up for a charming guest spot as a "famous director," the starfucking isn't winking at audiences, and it exists mostly for the characters. (A super bizarre exception here is a cameo from her former Californication co-star David Duchovny exuding absurdist narcissism.) Plus, a lot of these situations are close to Adlon's heart, such as Sam being a voice actress - Adlon voiced Bobby Hill on King of the Hill, for one - and a particular scene that throws back to the actress' appearance on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
To round up the rest of the things that make Better Things stand out, there's Orange is the New Black's Alysia Reiner as Sam's friend Sunny, whose buster of a husband gives Adlon one of the better scenes in the first half of the season screened for critics. As well, there's something magical about how the pacing of the editing meshes with the direction - both C.K. and Adlon got behind the camera for episodes - that allows for emotionally meaningful juxtapositions between what's being said and what's being shown. Sometimes those emotions cut deep, and sometimes they'll make you snort water out of your nose, even if you weren't drinking anything.
Knowing that FX head honcho John Landgraf thinks Peak TV is a bad thing, I have no problem keeping my disagreement moot, since the network's hit-to-miss ratio should be envied by most. Better Things is without a doubt a hit as far as the content is concerned. It's layered, it's smart, it's refreshing, and it lives up to the "better" in its name. Pamela Adlon is exactly what TV needed to kick off the fall season with spunk and style, and I can't wait to hear stories about mothers watching it with their daughters and laughing hysterically about how hectic their own pasts were.
Better Things premieres on Thursday, September 8, at 10:00 p.m. on FX. Don't miss it, and don't forget to tell your friends about it. Both the women and the men. To see what else is coming to FX and elsewhere, check out our fall TV schedule.