Two weeks ago, I noted that the exploration of sexism in “Women is the Something of the Something” felt especially relevant in the wake of the first presidential debate and ensuing conversation about Donald Trump’s misogynistic behavior.
Well, here we are now, mired in a national conversation about pussy-grabs, sexual assault and locker-room talk. And here’s another episode of Better Things that shows us what that behavior looks like in a Hollywood work setting where neither Donald Trump nor Billy Bush is present.
In this week’s episode, Sam plays a stereotypical wife on the pilot of a sitcom that’s so bad, it will either never make it to air, or become the hottest new thing on CBS. After getting hit on by the novice actor who plays her teenage son — a young man who expresses surprise that Sam is a mom in real life because she’s “hot” and he would “hook up with her” if given the chance — she visits the craft services table and chats with Greg (David Alan Basche), the show’s star.
“You’re hilarious,” he tells her.
Oh, this guy seems nice.
“And you’re a hottie,” he adds. “Slap a pair of tits on you, you’d be just my type.”
“Must be easier for you, though, right? You come in, you do a day’s work. You get to move on. Me? It’s the pressure of being The Guy. It’s my show. Everything’s on me.”
Oh, Jesus Christ.
Then Sam says she had four failed pilots by the time she was 13. To which Greg replies, “I’m glad I didn’t start young.”
Let’s summarize now, shall we? What this egotistical, failed TV star has told Sam, in words uttered casually between sips of coffee, is that she’s flat-chested, attractive but only to a point, less important at work, less valuable in general because she’s a woman with only average-sized breasts and a supporting role on this stupid TV show, and, to put an extra dollop of whipped cream on this ice cream sundae of disrespect, washed-up. What is “Glad I didn’t start young” but another way of saying, “Wow, you’ve clearly been trying to do this for too long”?
To Greg’s credit, at least he didn’t get an embarrassing hard-on during their conversation. Only Jessie — the actor playing Sam’s son, who gets a ride home from Sam after being fired — thinks so fully with his dick.
God, it’s depressing. And funny. And telling in terms of Sam’s response, especially to the Greg conversation. When he says all that stuff to her, instead of getting upset she just busts out a fake cackle and shakes it off. Sam has heard this sort of nonsense so many times — probably while snacking at the same craft-services table — that she’s desensitized to it. It’s the same thing that a lot of women do — what I have done myself — in these situations. Laugh it off and let it go. Not because those kinds of comments should be tolerated, but because who has the energy anymore?
That’s what growing older does: It makes you a little more tired, a little extra-over it, and a lot more cynical. “I used to think that the scary part of getting older was dying,” Sam tells her friend Rich (Diedrich Bader), “And it turns out that the scary part of getting older is young people.” It is the best line in this episode, and one that points at exactly what it’s about: How it feels to be mature when everyone around you stays the same age, especially the men.
That becomes clear in the opening scene, when an older gentleman at the Venice Love Shack seems to be putting the moves on Sam and then turns out to have a much younger girlfriend. It’s reflected in Sam’s comments about Paul McCartney’s marriages: “He married a lady 10 years younger and everybody was like, ‘Ew, what, does he have an old lady fetish?’” It’s painfully obvious when Sonny mentions that her husband is on Tinder. It’s even more painfully obvious when Sam meets her ex-husband for dinner. Turns out that, contrary to my previous assumptions, the mystery guy we’ve seen Sam hook up with this season, portrayed by Mather Zickel, is not her former spouse at all.
Instead, Xander is a wildly inconsiderate man played by Matthew Glave, who tells Sam he’ll be back in L.A. for the summer but doesn’t need to see their kids while he’s there, even though Sam would be happy to arrange a get-together. No, he just wants his daughters to know that he’s going to be too busy to spend time with them. He just hopes Sam will make sure they are not upset. “This project is on me,” he says, attempting to explain whatever work obligation makes him feel free to neglect his children. “It’s a huge project.” That sounds a lot like, “This is my show. Everything’s on me.”
Based on this encounter, it’s hard to imagine Sam ever being married to this guy. At first, they’re so formal and polite with each other that it’s not clear what their relationship is, which speaks to the distance between them. Sam must have loved Xander at one point, but now he’s such a stranger in her life that we, the audience who has observed her for the past five weeks, don’t immediately recognize this guy for who he actually is.
In keeping with the ethos of Better Things, “Alarms” doesn’t idealize Sam by pointing out the flaws of all the guys in her orbit. Sam can be just as dismissive of older woman as Jessie or Greg or Xander if you put her in the right company, by which I mean the company of her own mother.
That final big scene of the episode, where Sam runs over to Phil’s to turn off the house alarm, is so recognizable that it hurts a little to watch it. I don’t want to accuse the writers of this episode — Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K., and Cindy Chupack — of somehow spying on conversations that I once had with my mother, transcribing them, and inserting them into their television show. But I’m pretty sure they spied on conversations I used to have with my mother, transcribed them, and inserted them into their TV show.
Sam’s impatience, her frustration with all the piles of junk in Phil’s house, the ease with which she responds to her mother’s chattiness by trying to get the hell away from her: I know all of that behavior very well. Adlon, who based Sam’s relationship with Phil on her own relationship with her mom, probably does, too. The thing about Sam is that, unlike so many of the men around her, she’s self-aware enough to catch herself while she’s doing it. After one too many attempts to insist that her mother clear off the surfaces in her home, Phil suddenly breaks down — Celia Imrie is just perfect in this scene, by the way — and Sam softens, correcting her behavior but, notably, making sure she pours some vodka to help her mother’s battiness go down easier.
The scary part of getting older really is the young people. That includes the young people — or old people pretending to be young — who make you feel inferior for having the audacity to age. But it also includes the children who grow older and suddenly know what’s best for you. Sam has already learned the first half of that lesson. Her mom lives with the second part of it every day.