tv review

Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things Take the Auteur Sitcom to New Heights

ATLANTA -- “The Big Bang” -- Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, September 6, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: (l-r) Keith Standfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX
Atlanta. Photo: Guy D’Alema/Courtesy of FX

Donald Glover’s Atlanta, about a young, poor man on the fringes of Atlanta’s hip-hop scene, and Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, about a middle-aged actress in Hollywood, are the best new sitcoms of the fall and high-water marks for half-hour, auteur-driven TV comedy. It seems inevitable that both shows would appear on FX, the channel that let actor-filmmaker Louis C.K. do as he pleased on Louie as long as he shot every episode for pocket change. Like Louie, Atlanta and Better Things are indie-film-style statements by their stars — respectively, rapper and Community cast member Glover and longtime actress-comedian Adlon, who was a writer, producer, and guest star on some of the most striking episodes of Louie. (C.K. is a co-creator, co-writer, and executive producer of Better Things and directed the pilot.) Like Louie, both series run 30 minutes minus commercials; mine observational humor from daily life in the manner of brainy-abrasive stand-up comedy; and veer between slapstick, sadness, atmospheric beauty, and naturalistic, just-hangin’-out characterizations. Both shows concern themselves equally with creativity and parenting (Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, is a single mom raising three daughters, Glover’s Earnest “Earn” Marks a single dad whose ex has custody of their toddler-aged girl). And both follow Louie’s edict of letting comedy emerge from the personality and preoccupations of the creator-star while making no concessions to commercial formula: There are wrenching encounters with eccentric cameo characters so surreal that they almost seem to be hallucinated; the pilots of both series begin mid-scene, so abruptly that you might worry that the video is glitchy, then continue through mosaics of moments that seem to be arranged intuitively rather than in lockstep obedience to the demands of plot. But even though the programs’ artistic lineage is obvious, Atlanta and Better Things take C.K.’s refinements to a new level, merge them with worldviews that you rarely see represented on TV, and tell their stories with such economy and grace that you might feel as if a new language were being worked out before your eyes.

Better Things’ Sam is a former child actor who confronts ageism and sexism in Hollywood, bickers with her sharp-witted but revoltingly entitled daughters, bitches about the no-good ex whom she still supports, and flirts with a witty African-American director (Lenny Kravitz, charming as hell) and takes him home to meet her extended family, which unfortunately includes her 70-year-old British mum (Celia Imrie), one of those sweet-faced bigots who try to prove their enlightenment by telling a racist story at dinner. Every day, Sam fights multiple wars to maintain her dignity while still earning a living, and these battles tend to end in strategic retreat. Sam prices a face-lift and neck-lift, then recoils at the cost. She tells a TV director she’s uncomfortable with a moment of sexually explicit slapstick because she’s afraid her eldest daughter’s friends will watch it and make fun of her, then relents after admitting that it’s the funniest moment in the scene.

Earn’s travails on Atlanta are more urgent. He wants to jump-start a music-management career by representing his cousin, local rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), a talented and deadpan-funny musician who supports his hip-hop habit by selling drugs and worries that too much artistic success will make his day job harder. And he wants to prove to his daughter’s mother, Van (Zazie Beetz), whose bed is the only thing standing between him and homelessness, that he can Be the Man and pay the bills — an ambition that sets up an agonizing twist on an old sitcom staple, the scene where a man offers to treat a woman to a dinner he can’t afford. “Poor people don’t have time for investments,” Earn explains to a friend who tries to set him up with a deal that’ll pay off a year down the road, “because poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.”

The cultural specificity of both shows elevates them beyond almost any arty half-hour on TV, including Lena Dunham’s Girls, the only recent show that rivaled Louie’s mix of experimental filmmaking, local color, and journalistic observation. Better Things’ portrait of the audition circuit as a slow-motion acid bath for actresses is a sharp feminist read on an ancient showbiz ritual, while Atlanta’s regional shout-outs include a tribute to JR Crickets’ lemon-pepper chicken and many scenes in which guns are handled as casually as babies or Swisher Sweets cigars. Many episodes include marvelous two-hander scenes between their stars and a guest player that could be little short films in themselves, such as Sam bonding with a can-collecting homeless woman over their shared experience as moms, or Earn going out behind a warehouse to purchase a dog, only to overhear a Chinese man tearfully shouting into a cell phone while goats bleat in a pen behind him. Both shows are astute, though in wildly different ways, about the lived experience of being an artist, and all the indignities that go along with it. Sam lands a plum role on a TV series only to be dumped for a younger, hotter actress. Earn has to grease a DJ’s palm with $500 to get his cousin’s record played; Paper Boi’s modest breakthrough attracts the attention of a pizza deliveryman who boosts him face-to-face, then slags him on Instagram and Snapchat.

As impressive as these characters and stories are, the filmmaking is even more noteworthy. I’ve been a TV critic for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen directing and editing in a half-hour series as minimalist, precise, yet full of feeling as what’s been achieved here by Adlon and Glover and their collaborators (whose ranks include veteran music-video director Hiro Murai on Atlanta) — it’s the closest that scripted TV has gotten to the spare literary fiction of Charles Portis or Raymond Carver, who could sum up a relationship in five sentences of description and a bit of Ping-Pong dialogue. Miraculously, though, this economy of gesture never makes it feel as if Atlanta or Better Things were just trying to leapfrog to the next plot point or cheap laugh, as is too often the case in today’s sitcom landscape of gag-driven, hyperactively edited, “Remember when this happened?” comedy. In fact, there are long stretches where you could say that “nothing is happening” — if by “nothing” you mean a shot of friends smoking weed in the suburban-Atlanta countryside at magic hour while cicadas whir, or a woman watching a maybe-boyfriend drive home after a disastrous dinner, his car slowly vanishing into the Los Angeles smog. These shows have the pulse of life.

*This article appears in the September 5, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

TV Review: Atlanta and Better Things