The third season of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is the best the show has ever been. Even when the characters are hurting themselves, being petty and hypocritical, and otherwise making a mess of things, it’s a pleasure to watch because so much care and thought have gone into each frame and line. Adlon, who directed every episode and wrote or co-wrote most of them, has perfected techniques she’s employed for two seasons and is trying out some new ones. She puts you inside characters’ minds at moments of intense (often mixed) emotions, humbles self-dramatizing characters by lingering on the vastness of a cityscape or night sky, and captures an afternoon or evening in a dialogue-free montage, each shot a lyric in a song made of pictures. The serenely focused filmmaking lets Better Things seem light on its feet when the material is heavy. And it does get heavy. Sometimes Adlon’s character, Sam, an actress and divorced mom, walks as if she’s wearing a rucksack full of bricks, head hung low, clenched hands swinging at hip height. That Sam lives well doesn’t mean she’s living easy. Every day, the first order of business is facing what The Sopranos’ Chris Moltisanti described as “the fuckin’ regularness of life.”
Sam struggles with clothes that used to fit fine. She endures a heavier-than-usual flow and what she assumes are hot flashes and begs the universe to go ahead and end her cycle so she can have two to seven days of every month back. When Sam goes out with her girlfriends and gets wasted — the kind of night that barely would’ve registered in her 20s — she spends the next day nearly crawling from points A to B. She worries that her chipper English gaslighter of a mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), may be losing her memory, or her sanity, or is on the verge of becoming a danger to her daughter, her granddaughters, and herself. Sam takes her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), to college in Chicago and nearly gets ditched before she can enjoy the bittersweet parting that she fantasized about. Her tightly wound middle daughter, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), dissects every edict Sam issues and every life decision she’s made, looking for inconsistencies and loopholes. Frankie gets so mad whenever she thinks her mom is going easier on her kid sister, Duke (Olivia Edward), that sometimes she hits Duke, hard, so hard that her rage frightens Sam. Duke, meanwhile, wants to be told adult secrets and taught adult skills and feels disrespected when her mother treats her like the kid she still is. At the same time, Duke wants certain agreed-upon lies to be reinforced: namely, that her mother and father (Matthew Glave’s Xander) once loved each other, that their divorce was just one of those things, and that, deep down, her father is a good man who cares about his children, rather than a monumental disappointment who keeps raising his daughters’ hopes and dashing them again.
Sam can’t catch a break even when she’s alone in a quiet space. She pictures her father, Murray (Adam Kulbersh), advocating spinelessness while she’s summoning the backbone to warn a clueless sci-fi director (Kris Marshall) that his unsafe set could turn into another Twilight Zone: The Movie. Most disturbing are Sam’s feverish nightmares of her ex-husband having rough sex with her and sometimes raping her. Sam doesn’t like or respect her ex, they haven’t been intimate in years, and there was no abuse during their marriage. What gives? Maybe Sam doesn’t know what the dreams mean, or maybe she knows but is repressing the truth. She’s never been in therapy and seems to think that wanting or needing it is an admission that there’s something “wrong” with her. (She eventually does try, with a silver-haired, bespectacled shrink played by none other than Matthew Broderick.)
“It’s a lot,” Sam admits, in a moment so raw that it catches even her by surprise. “And some mornings, I just lay in bed in my room and I stare at the ceiling and I say, ‘I just can’t do it anymore, I just can’t, I just can’t, I just can’t, I can’t, I can’t.’ ” That’s a cry of pain — one of many in a season filled with awkward, surreal, and disturbing beats.
Fortunately, Adlon and her collaborators have a keen sense of when to pull back from the brink and how to dazzle us with truthful situations and poetic images so we briefly forget there even is a brink. Better Things dives right into the fleeting moments that pass between parents and children, adult children and elderly parents, and middle-aged friends and siblings (Kevin Pollak shows up as Sam’s brother Marion, a pot-smoking Republican who’s running from his own life), and it lives there so comfortably that the passage of time becomes meaningless. Some of the wordless montages — in particular Sam driving home from a film set, horny and distracted after being hit on by a younger lesbian manager; Max flirting with a handsome man who appreciates her creativity as well as her beauty; and an impromptu two-person sing-along to “Easter Parade,” from Meet Me in St. Louis — are moving in their simplicity and directness. Television has become so enamored of obvious signifiers of “cinema,” particularly CGI panoramas and casts of (digital) thousands, that sometimes its makers forget that some of the most transcendent moments require nothing more than strong actors, a good ear, and a discerning eye.
Better Things never forgets. Nor does it trouble itself to act world-weary and unshockable when it’s chronicling the everyday hopes and missteps of what is, all things considered, a healthy and loving family headed by a parent who isn’t perfect but is great. The core of Sam’s greatness is a willingness to be strong for her kids, listen to her kids, and sometimes baby her kids, even when the weight from that rucksack is crushing her. Sometimes she says she just can’t. But she always does. “She’s crazy and a complete pain in the ass and annoying,” Marion tells Duke. “But she loves you, and she would do anything for you. And the most important thing in the world — the most important thing — is that she’s there … Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. She will always be there.”
Better Things premieres February 28 on FX.
*This article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!