If Pamela Adlon’s wonderful FX comedy Better Things, which just finished its second season, survives her association with longtime collaborator Louis C.K. — and it certainly deserves to — it’ll be because C.K.’s comedy was about weird and often disturbing thought experiments, while Adlon’s is about restoring and maintaining order.
Adlon co-produced and co-starred on C.K.’s Louie for five seasons and was one of his most important collaborators. Her “Pamela” character often came across as the better angel of Louie’s nature. But in a lot of ways, Better Things feels like the product of a thought experiment all its own: What if you took the standard-issue “female voice of reason” character who’s usually cast as the wife or girlfriend opposite impulsive, slobbish man children, and then made her three-dimensional, pushed the men to the sidelines, and made the show about her instead?
The result is one of the best comedies ever made about single parenting, and parenting period. For all its frankness about sex, drugs, drinking, and the emotional damage that parents do to their kids (and vice-versa), Better Things is ultimately an optimistic series about people who muddle through life while sincerely doing the best they can. Louie, in contrast, was a Brechtian laboratory for dramatic and comic experiments, and it often teased audiences with the question of whether C.K. was better or worse than his similarly named lead character. Better Things clearly separates Adlon from the show’s heroine, an actor and single mom, even giving her an unmistakably different name, Sam Fox. It leaves no doubt that you’re seeing fiction, not a Louie-style confessional blur of drama and stand-up.
Sam is also the audience’s moral compass from scene to scene. She doesn’t always find true north, but she’s never too far off. If the show weren’t so honest about the character’s doubts and failings — as well as her self-lacerating fear that she’s an incompetent or even a bad mom — you could call it Mother Knows Best. Sam doesn’t always have the right answers and doesn’t always walk the correct path, but she always strives to be better than she is.
And yet, Better Things rarely sentimentalizes its heroine. Even when it caps a season by having Sam lead a choreographed dance number with her daughters, Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), to celebrate the graduation of her eldest, Max (Mikey Madison), we’re aware of the frustration and resentment that she carries around with her at other times. No other current TV series better captures that conflicted sense of being ready to give your life for your children even when you want to strangle them. Max, Frankie, and Sam are smart, self-assured, and charismatic, but they’re not nice. A lot of the time they’re assholes, in the way that all kids (teenagers especially) can be assholes: casually, even reflexively. They love their mother as much as their mother loves them, but their adolescent brains aren’t wired right.
Better Things also makes the frank suggestion that Sam’s devotion to her career and her upper-middle-class conflation of love and material goods might’ve hardened her kids’ selfish tendencies anyway. (Rolling her eyes at another of her mom’s “When I was your age …” anecdotes, Max says, “Blah, blah, and the phones were really big, and they stayed in your house.”) But for all her faults, Sam is worth looking up to. She’s the person who talks other characters off whatever ledge they happen to be standing on, or gently guides them toward confronting a harsh truth they were trying to deny — as she does in the season-two finale, which finds Max breaking down in tears after her estranged father fails to show up for her graduation party.
Sam steers lovers and potential lovers in the right direction, too. In a memorable episode from earlier in the season, she goes on a weekend trip to wine country with a possible new boyfriend named Robin (Henry Thomas) and musters up the nerve to tell him she’s uncomfortable that he booked just one bedroom for them, because “if we only have one room, we can only do one thing.” Like a lot of stories about Sam’s sex life, this one pivots on matters of consent. It’s about feeling heard and respected rather than pressured into doing something you may not want to do for fear of hurting a man’s feelings. (Robin apologizes, but the relationship falls apart for other reasons.) A later scene between Jeff (Greg Cromer), the ex-husband of Sam’s friend Sunny (Alysia Reiner), finds Sam shutting down a potential kiss because she’s just not feeling it. She even covers Jeff’s mouth and says variations of “no” to him over and over for two minutes straight, as if training a dog not to bite. “Thank God, oh my God, you suck, thank God,” she says afterward, as if she’s relieved that Jeff blatantly revealed himself as a bad prospect instead of making her wonder and cushion his feelings while waiting for the other shoe to drop. Another episode has Sam telling a regular hookup that he’s boring and bad at sex, but only after he’s pressured her all night to reassure him that he’s a nice guy and a good lover who’s doing everything right. “Boo on you!” she tells him. “Bad job! Nope! Bad job! You’re no fun. Oh God, I have hated you since the first moment of our first date, and I have been dating you for three weeks. If I had been real honest, I would have said, ‘Nope’ the minute I met your face.”
If you watched Louie, these scenes and others will feel like answers to, or commentaries on, episodes of C.K.’s show that tried to provoke questions about male entitlement and female acquiescence — especially the controversial two-parter “Pamela,” in which an oafish, infatuated Louie made a move on Pamela, then tried to force himself on her when she resisted him. All of Sam’s men on season two of Better Things are reminiscent of Louie at various points of that show’s run. That C.K.’s name is on so many Better Things screenplays as either sole writer or Adlon’s co-writer suggests that he was thinking about them as well, even as he studiously avoided public discussion of the charges that he’d exposed himself to multiple women.
It’s understandable that some would want to erase or downplay C.K.’s contributions to Better Things, one of five programs that FX took away from him after the New York Times exposed his sexual misconduct. But it’s clear from this season’s writing credits, as well as his longstanding creative partnership with Adlon, that he was an important collaborator. I wonder, did C.K. deny the allegations to Adlon when they were writing these episodes — or years ago? Did she ask him about them directly? If so, how did she frame the questions? Does it even matter whether she knew? At some point, we may have answers to such questions, but for now we only have C.K.’s admission of guilt (though not a proper apology) and a statement from Adlon: “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. I am asking for privacy at this time for myself and my family. I am processing and grieving and hope to say more as soon as I am able.”
These are extra-dramatic dimensions of the work that fans of both filmmakers surely never wanted to consider. But we can’t avoid considering them. They’re right there, lurking just beneath the surface of scenes that theoretically have nothing to do with either C.K. or Adlon. How much collateral damage will C.K.’s crimes end up causing his patrons and collaborators? This is another question that can only be answered in time, because culturally, we’re in new territory. Never before have so many powerful sexual predators been called out in such a short time span by so many accusers. The revelations have had immediate and tangibly negative consequences for Kevin Spacey, fired from House of Cards; Harvey Weinstein, kicked out of professional associations as well as the distribution company that he founded; and Roy Moore, the G.O.P Senate candidate in Alabama, who as of this writing is eight points down in the polls.
The situation is more complicated with Better Things because C.K. worked on the show and helped get it green-lit, but is not its main creative force. My hope is that Adlon will continue to produce more seasons of Better Things without C.K., because she’s obviously more than capable of it, and because Better Things could be better — or at least strikingly different — without the participation of Adlon’s disgraced friend and writing partner. As a viewer, I’m curious to see what a C.K.-free version would look like. This is a show about striving to be honest with yourself, improving your life and your loved ones’ lives, and making tough but necessary choices. If Adlon moves forward and doesn’t look back, she’ll be very much on-message.