This week's episode of Better Things offers up a handful of pleasingly specific details: the way Max and her friend Paisley try to blow off Sam once they’ve managed to get into the VIP section at a concert; Sam’s frank, funny attempt to comfort Paisley after she runs into a guy she once hooked up with (“If it’s any consolation, I see people I blew all the time”); how Sam turns her failed attempt to donate an unwanted table into the opportunity to score a killer roast-chicken recipe. Oh, and here’s one more: the fact that Joe Walsh is in this episode.
No, I’m not referring to the former congressman who says misguided things about muskets. I am talking about the original Joe Walsh: the rock legend, notorious trasher of hotel rooms, and, with all due respect to Don Henley and the late Glenn Frey, easily the most entertaining Eagle. This is the guy who made a very funny music video for the semi-obscure '80s rocker “I Can Play That Rock ’n’ Roll,” which, to this day, I still think of every time there’s a fly buzzing around a room, refusing to be caught. (I also think of The Karate Kid in such situations, but that’s a story for another time.)
Joe Walsh plays a key role in this episode, not only because he’s the artist that Sam, Max, Paisley, and Macy go to see live, as well as someone who offers some very good advice about curing double headaches (chamomile tea plus hot sauce), but also because his best-known song speaks directly to the central theme of this episode. That song, one Walsh performs and that later emanates from Sam’s minivan sound system, is “Life’s Been Good,” a sharply written psychological profile of a narcissistic rock star who has everything a person could want in life but seems incapable of properly appreciating it. “I have a mansion, forget the price / Ain’t never been there, they tell me it’s nice.”
This whole episode is about doing the opposite of what the subject of “Life’s Been Good” does: realizing that life really is good, even when everything is telling you otherwise. The episode is even called “Hair of the Dog,” a reference to the time-honored practice of avoiding a hangover by drinking more alcohol, and that ties in with the “Life’s Been Good” idea, too. Instead of feeling awful and stewing over your problems while suffering from a double headache, have another drink (at least metaphorically) and try to enjoy yourself. It’s what Joe Walsh would probably do.
This idea is reflected in each of the episode's seemingly disconnected vignettes, including the pick-me-up speech Sam gives to Paisley and the way Paisley subsequently reminds Max that she should appreciate her mother; the moment when Sam turns her mistrust of the Bulgarian mover into a moment of roast-chicken connection; and, most pointedly, the decision to take that oversize table out of the garage and plop it on the back deck so the whole family can enjoy dining al fresco. (Sam even tries her best to appreciate her own mom at the end.) If you can’t get the unwanted furniture off your property, you can at least get some good use out of it, right?
The only scenario that doesn’t speak to the notion of counting one’s blessings is the conversation early on between Sam and Modi (Chris Williams) about their respective romantic relationships. They’re each lying to each other and themselves about what’s going on. Modi’s doing it by acting like his dysfunctional relationship is totally fine, while Sam characterizes her status with her mystery man as casual when it’s obviously not. (“I want to have something real with you,” the guy tells Sam, and she reciprocates. Says Sam to Modi: “It’s a mutual thing. I don’t care about him. He doesn’t care about me.”) Because they’re such good friends, they see right through each other. But even so, they still don’t 'fess up to the truth.
This is the one area where it’s too hard for Sam to see that life really is good. If she admitted as much, it would mean having to deal with a potentially life-changing commitment. It’s much easier to stay in denial, just as this show continues to deny us the opportunity to know who this potential love of her life might be.
This episode of Better Things, the last before next week’s season finale, has a vibe that matches the word I used a moment ago: casual. Much of this first season, especially its second half, adopts a similar tone. It flows naturally, from one slice-of-life moment to the next, but doesn’t necessarily seem like a cohesive, meaningful whole until you sit with it for a while and figure out the common denominator that runs through its pieces.
It’s what I like about this show, and it’s an approach that wouldn’t work if the characters weren’t as recognizable, flawed, and empathetic as they are. This week, for example, when Max glares at Sam and flings a “Mom, don’t even” at her, the tone in her voice rings with so much adolescent impudence, you’re not sure whether to laugh or “oof” at its authenticity. As for Sam, I don’t think there’s another mother on TV at the moment who feels more approachable and authentic. She’s a mom you want to have coffee with, or drink beer with at a Joe Walsh concert, or maybe even sit across from at a big ol’ table where roast chicken is being served, outside in the fresh California air.