At what point did you fall in love with Better Things?
Was it during the pilot’s very first scene, when Pamela Adlon’s Sam, while purposefully ignoring her crying child, turns to that extremely nosy bystander and says, “Do you want to buy her the earrings?”
Was it during the fantastic audition scene in which multiple talented actresses are forced to read the same hackneyed dialogue — “Listen, Jack, I started this firm and you are not getting rid of me” — in the hopes of getting cast in a mediocre drama?
There are no wrong answers here, by the way. “Sam/Pilot” is so beautifully realized by series co-creators Adlon and Louis C.K. that it serves as both a satisfying introduction to a promising new comedy as well as a lovely, funny short film that could easily stand on its own even if there were never an episode two. (Don’t worry: There’s an episode two.)
Every scene, as directed by C.K. with wonderfully understated deliberateness, is a winner. But to me, the moment that officially tipped Better Things into “Oh my God, IT ME” territory is the scene in which Sam shops for school supplies with Max (Mikey Madison), her oldest and most entitled daughter. Every parent has gone through some form of this exercise: You tackle a simple, banal task in an attempt to assist your child. Then the task becomes challenging, which is frustrating because buying pencils and stuff shouldn’t be that hard. Then it quickly escalates to completely and totally overwhelming because Jesus Christ, don’t we already have enough stuff to do? Moms and dads of America, aren’t we all asking ourselves, on a daily basis: “Where is the freaking graph paper?!”
Regardless of whether a person has claimable dependents, anyone can appreciate these perceptive, carefully chosen details. (The fact that Sam’s youngest daughter, Duke, wears oversize clothes that are likely hand-me-downs is perfect.) But if you happen to be a parent — be it single, divorced, married, or partnered — watching Better Things is like looking into a freshly Windexed mirror and seeing all your tiny but very real struggles reflected back at you. Case in point: How many times have I or my husband crawled into bed with our son, insisting we would lie down for just a few minutes because we have a lot to do, then fallen asleep and abandoned every task on our agenda? So. Many. Times.
Like Atlanta, the other excellent FX comedy that debuted this week, Better Things drops you into a world that may be recognizable or not, depending on your circumstances, but feels fully formed either way. That said, if people are inclined to compare Better Things to another FX series, they will likely compare it to Louie. The shared, observant comedic sensibilities of Adlon and C.K. are present in both, of course, and the shows’ premises are similar. On Louie, C.K. is a divorced dad raising daughters and attempting to date while doing stand-up comedy. On Better Things, Adlon is a divorced mom raising daughters and attempting to date while pursuing acting and animated voice work, details that have all been plucked from Adlon’s real life. But as much as C.K.’s influence is felt, Better Things is definitely Adlon’s show, one that unfolds from a distinctly female perspective and gives her a well-deserved opportunity to fully and unapologetically shine. Sam may be allergic to bullshit, but there’s also a warmth to the character that makes you want to ride in her carpool for as long as FX allows.
As previously noted, Adlon and C.K. pack a lot of authentic, hilarious, and moving moments into a half-hour comedy. These are the ones that really stood out for me:
- I absolutely love the conversation between Adlon and Constance Zimmer, both because of the way they giggle over their audition dialogue and the way the scene cuts between Adlon’s calm description of her life and the tense moments that illustrate how chaotic it really is. Honest to God, I would watch an entire series called Waiting Room — its theme song would be “Waiting Room” by Fugazi, obviously — that stars Adlon and Zimmer waiting outside different auditions each week while gabbing about motherhood.
- The fact that Julie Bowen clearly won the part puts a hell of an exclamation point on that scene. I love the fact that she’s the only blonde in a sea of brunettes, all of whom are auditioning for the same part.
- The way C.K. directs the interruption of Adlon’s recording session is a stroke of brilliance. Seeing that little cartoon critter’s mouth moving while Sam unleashes a profane rant about her daughter’s teacher is hysterical. I also read it as a smart, subtle commentary on the expectations we place on women: It’s okay to be mad, ladies, just be cute and cuddly while you’re doing it.
- Like most contemporary comedies, Better Things does heartbreaking just as well as it does funny. Case in point: the scene where Sam shares almost romantic texts with a man who appears to be her ex-husband while “Both Sides Now” plays. The fact that her ex is played by Mather Zickel, who semi-resembles Olivia Edward, the actress who plays Duke, gives the whole thing an extra twinge of poignancy.
- The music in this episode is just so well-chosen and well-placed. In addition to “Both Sides Now,” the use of a particular portion of Belle Brigade’s “Losers” at the end of the audition scene is genius: “There will always be someone better than you/Even if you’re the best/So let’s stop the competition/Or we will both be losers.” Even the show’s choice of theme, “Mother” by John Lennon, works on multiple levels. As each episode begins, the lines that linger are lyrics originally sung from a son to the mother who abandoned him: “I wanted you/But you didn’t want me.” In the context of Better Things, those lines sound like they’re directed from a mother to her daughters, who are already growing up and away from her.
As this first episode illustrates again and again, Sam refuses to be a non-presence in the lives of her daughters, so long as they are still her girls and not their own adults. Every day, by chauffeuring them all over town and arguing with them and picking up their clothes and helping them find their damn graph paper, she is saying what every mother says to her kids: “Listen, Jack: you are not getting rid of me.”