This week’s Better Things is about listening and the fact that most of us, Pamela Adlon’s Sam included, fail to do a decent job of it.
In “Future Fever,” Sam proves that she’s pretty good at noting when other people neglect to devote their undivided attention to what’s actually being said. She calls out Frances, the busybody fellow soccer mom who asks her to pray for another mother suffering from an illness. (“Did she ask for that, the praying?” Sam skeptically wonders.) She criticizes Phil for rambling on and on while ignoring cues from others. At a restaurant, she really goes to town on Max for texting and not engaging with her (“Mom, I’m in a group chat. It’s a big thing,” Max explains), then unleashes a tornado of blame on the self-involved dude at the next table who’s neither seeing nor hearing his female companion. That last scenario gives this episode its biggest laugh, when Sam gestures to the seat across from Max and says to the guy, “You should sit over there since you both don’t listen and I will sit here with your lovely date, who you don’t notice.” In a great “I’ll have what she’s having” moment, the guy looks at Max, considers the invitation, then says a flirtatious “Hi,” prompting a chorus of “Eww!” from all three women.
Sam — and for that matter, most sentient beings — may not wear blinders as thick as First Date Guy, but the truth is she’s no better at two-way communication herself. When Frankie tells her she has a fever and can’t go to her soccer game, Sam refuses to absorb that information because it’s her turn to bring snacks. When Phil tries to give Sam her pin numbers in case she unexpectedly croaks, Sam just walks away. (Admittedly, it’s not necessarily helpful for Phil to start shouting that information during a dog walk.) And when it comes to Max, Sam definitely doesn’t sense the anxiety that’s dominating her daughter’s mental and emotional state, not until that get-together with a bunch of Sam’s friends where Max finally shares her feelings.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life,” she begins. “I’m really confused and I’m never getting into college.” Sam opens her mouth to protest, but then Diedrich Bader’s Rich, in a wonderfully subtle gesture, waves his hand to signal that she should stop talking. Be quiet, he’s saying. You might actually hear your daughter.
That casual living-room conversation — a group chat IRL — is the centerpiece of this episode. It’s filled with all the things that make Better Things so terrific: a casual, natural vibe, dialogue that never rings false for a millisecond, a lens that focuses on faces reacting and not just mouths moving, and an ability to capture tiny moments — like a single admission of self-doubt from a teenager to a roomful of adults — that speak to universal truths. In this case, it’s the fact that many people spend their lives feeling inadequate and believing they’re alone in those feelings. Watching this scene reminded me of how much easier it was, at 16, to confide in grown-ups who weren’t your mom or dad. It also suggests that teens like Max, raised on social media and texting to mass recipients, are much more comfortable sharing in a public way than they are in intimate, one-on-one conversation.
“I am just now starting to realize that I am going to be, like, 18 in two years,” Max says. (Note how Mikey Madison dials back Max’s usual entitled air to unearth the vulnerability beneath this line.) “And it’s like, I already blew it. That’s how it feels.”
“You know, honey,” says Tressa (Rebecca Metz), “I felt exactly like that when I was your age. And when I was 20. And this morning.”
“I’m going to let you in on a big, fat secret about life, and that’s that you don’t ever figure it out and you’re always behind, and it’s kind of always unfair, frankly,” adds Macy (Lucy Davis, Dawn from the British version of The Office). Sam doesn’t say anything, but she does start to cry, which instantly made me tear up too. Better Things being Better Things, it doesn’t lean into that sentimentality for very long, instead opting to let a scantily clad Phil crash the party and accuse Sam of stealing wine from her garage. To Phil’s credit, at least she didn’t talk about pantyhose while using racial slurs.
Sam eventually shows Max that she heard her. They go shopping together, and Sam visually demonstrates through the use of fashion — a nice, feminine touch — that Max might already look more like the woman she wants to be than she realizes. “You know those people that you see every day that look like they have their shit together and they made all the right choices and how impossible it seems just to get to that place?” Sam says. “Well, look. Look at you. You look like one of those people. And all they did was put on the clothes.”
It’s another way of saying: We’re all faking it, but admitting that also makes us real.
We’re now officially halfway through season one of Better Things and so far, it keeps delivering on the promise of its pilot. There are a number of great shows on TV right now that deal with family dynamics, including other newcomers like Speechless and HBO’s Divorce. But I can’t think of another show where the relationships between a parent and her children feel so real and lived-in, as if they’re playing out in actual life and, for a half hour every week, FX simply lets us observe them.
Life is good, Sam tells Max, even at its worst. The same could be said about the sensibility of Better Things, a show that stubbornly refuses to sugarcoat anything. Every week, it admits that life is hard. But it also lets us in on another of life’s big, fat secrets: All the things that make it hard are also what make it so exquisite.