The episode descriptions for Better Things make me laugh harder than most actual jokes on other TV comedies. “Sam copes with stuff,” reads one. “Sam sees old friends and cooks for everyone,” is another.
There’s a certain cheekiness to that simplicity. But when it comes to Pamela Adlon’s Peabody-winning comedy, which premieres its third season Thursday, there’s also a welcome truth. Adlon’s Sam Fox is just coping. She’s hanging out with friends. In one episode, she cooks. In another, she takes her daughter to school. She has a colonoscopy.
Better Things has a bemusement about that everyday life and those everyday things, when so much comedy seems cynical about it. It’s comforting to watch a TV series that’s not necessarily escapist, but also not too brutally real. It makes you feel a little less crazy about what it takes to just get through the day to watch Sam, a single mom of three kids and a working actress, try to get through hers. You’re transported into reality, not out of it.
Daily battles are waged with compassion and an open heart, but Better Things doesn’t retreat from the unpleasantness that manages to infiltrate, despite our best efforts. It’s that point, the inability to escape from ugly outside forces, that threatened to cloud the new season, and maybe even derail it from becoming the triumph that it is.
Louis C.K. still appears in the end credits of Better Things. He co-created it with Adlon, his longtime collaborator.
Better Things, top to bottom, is very much Adlon’s show and always has been. The characters are closely based on her own family. She directs every episode. Even the clothes she wears and the paintings that dress the set are her own. But C.K. executive produced and wrote for the first two seasons, though he has no role in season three. His influence is palpable in Adlon’s perspective, even in his absence.
After C.K. admitted to exposing himself and masturbating in front of women without their consent, FX cut ties with the comedian and Adlon released a statement saying, “My family and I are devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behavior by my friend and partner, Louis C.K. I feel deep sorrow and empathy for the women who have come forward.”
“It felt like the world was ending,” she said. “I was his champion and he was my champion for ten years… And then you’ve got these women, who’ve all been through these things. And you’re, like, what does that mean? What did you do?”
Season three hired four new writers to replace C.K., and Adlon made her editing room all female. “I told my daughters that I should make t-shirts that say ‘Bad for my life, good for my show,’” she told the magazine, with a wit that should not be confused with being glib, much like how Sam encounters most situations in Better Things.
On Thursday’s premiere, Sam flies to Chicago to drop her oldest daughter off at college. Both women attempt a breeziness about it. They are each prone to Big Feelings, if not while always being big sharers. There’s always a temptation to turn scenes like these into saccharine operas on TV, but Better Things rejects that. We spend an inordinate amount of time with the pair while they walk through a CVS and stock up on supplies, a mundane activity that suddenly becomes profound.
The casualness continues when it’s time to say goodbye, and that’s when Sam’s had enough. She wants her “big, life, This Is Us, milestone moment goodbye hug.” She gets it. It’s wonderful.
There’s a constant warmth in how Sam interacts with the world, made all the more relatable because Sam is actually a rather gruff and even cranky person. When a parent at Back to School Day snaps her last nerve, she’s a blown gasket of exasperation: “Why can’t anyone be a person?” It’s like those episode descriptions. It’s a hilariously vague complaint, but I’ll be damned if there’s another line on TV this year that I didn’t so specifically understand.
Yet when her daughters are going through a hard time, there’s a way in which Adlon-as-Sam gazes at them, the kind smile that spreads across her face, that just gets to you. You’re not struck by how quickly she can move between fuming and adoration. You recognize it.
There’s nothing particularly linear about the narrative in Better Things, which has been described in the past as a “tone poem” of a TV series. We get little snapshots of moments in Sam’s life, yet each glimpse is so fully realized and emotionally rich that you see whole story lines immediately—whole lifetimes, really.
There are mental health issues and terrible fights and puberty and grandma’s looming mortality and problems at work and broken toilets—all these things that we recognize from the thoughts and anxieties that consume our every waking moment—but things never get too tragic. Or seem too insurmountable. Or even too hopeful, or too uplifting, or too jokey.
This may be where Adlon and C.K. diverge in their fundamental points of view. Both are auteurs whose outputs are so refreshing because they reveal everyday life through perspectives we’re typically meant to keep hidden from the world. But if Louis C.K.’s seems more nihilistic or at least apathetic, Adlon’s finishing touch is that tiniest shade of optimism and sun: things might just be OK. More, she’s choosing that. Thank God she did. It’s a reminder to us to do the same.
It takes intention, to lay out life’s impossibilities on the table and still believe action can make things better, if just in the smallest, almost immeasurable ways. That’s different from Louie’s shrug about it all, that the world is something to be weathered. Both are valid points of view. I’m glad that Better Things is the one that we’re getting right now.
I sat down to watch the new season, yes, excited because I adored seasons one and two of this series, but also just in a bit of a huff out of workerly duty and when going through a bit of a rough time in my life. Nothing exceptionally dramatic. Just the kinds of little itches and nags and pokes and prods that you go through sometimes that make being a person suddenly more of a task for a little while.
An entire afternoon later, I had finished all eight episodes given to us for review, and had experienced catharsis. It’s odd and actually quite difficult to articulate how a TV show could be that relieving, or that emboldening, or that... whatever Better Things managed to trigger that Monday afternoon while I watched at my desk at work. But I’m sure that if you give yourself the time to do the same, it might make things a little better for you, too.