The superb third season of Better Things came to a close Thursday night in the same way Pamela Adlon’s Sam celebrated her 50th birthday: quietly and thoughtfully.
That number — 50 — hovered over the the entire season, which covered a lot of emotional terrain, but more than anything else was about aging, a subject that television and movies rarely examine with the sort of unflinching eye possessed by Adlon, who wrote or co-wrote eight of the 12 episodes, including the finale, and directed all of them.
If 40 is the birthday when it sinks in, hard and deep, that your youth is definitely behind you, then 50 is the birthday where, if you’ve been lucky enough to stay relatively healthy up to that point, your mortality smacks you right in your collagen-deprived face. It isn’t clear until the last three episodes that Sam’s milestone birthday has anything to do with the events and issues explored in each of the FX comedy’s most recent snapshots of working single-mom life. “Show Me the Magic,” the tenth episode, is the one that finally confirms that Sam’s late father Murray, whose ghost has been haunting the Fox home as well as Sam personally, had a heart attack when he was around 50. Sam is sensing his presence because she’s about to reach the same age and, hopefully, a future that he was never able to experience. But she’s also feeling 50 because 50 insists that she feel it.
The third season of Better Things reveals a Sam losing control. That manifests itself physically, right from the very first scene of the first episode, as she wrestles with every button-down shirt and pair of jeans in her closet to find one that fits her growing midsection. “I just bought these last week,” she laments as yet another pair of pants refuses to button. Her body betrays her in other, more troubling ways too. She’s going through menopause so she has hot flashes. Her sleep cycle is a mess. Then, in the seventh episode, “Toilet,” she has a health scare when a doctor finds polyps in her colon. They turn out to be noncancerous, but the idea that her body is betraying her — and might really take that to an extreme — is real and palpable.
By the way, “Toilet” features what is, as far as I know, the only montage devoted to a woman prepping for a colonoscopy to ever appear in an episode of television. The fact that Better Things would show Sam sitting on a toilet, repeatedly, to the tune of a song called “Yodelin’ Two Timer,” is evidence of what makes it so great: Adlon depicts even unpleasant activities like emptying one’s bowels with a visual warmth that implies that life, even at its absolute grossest, is still something lovely. She even uses defecation to make a feminist point. When Lev, the plumber, suggests there’s no way that the four women who live in the house could make enough caca to clog the toilet, Sam insists that they haven’t been flushing tampons or Q-tips down there. “You don’t know these ladies,” she gently informs him, “and you don’t know our caca.” Someone, please, put this on a T-shirt.
Sam is also losing control of her patience, perhaps in part because of the hormonal havoc being wrecked by menopause, but also because you get sick of putting up with crap at a certain age. She’s the one who stands up to the pretentious, inconsiderate director of Monsters in the Moonlight, a zombie potential blockbuster in which she’s starring, when it becomes apparent that he’s ignoring the safety and well-being of his actors. She’s the one who snaps when the husband of her friend, Lala (Judy Reyes), comes home early from a baseball game and disrupts the female bonding that had been planned among Sam, Lala, and their lady friends for weeks. (Sam’s not wrong to be mad about this, by the way. She’s just the only one with the cajones to say how inconsiderate it is.) And in the finale, when her best friend Rich (Diedrich Bader) says that his new, much younger boyfriend will be joining them for lunch, Sam loses it. She insists that it was supposed to be their lunch, and acts like she doesn’t like this new guy or the person Rich becomes when he’s with him. But the truth is that Sam doesn’t like the idea of being replaced, especially by someone two decades her junior.
When your mortality sets in, so does the reality that someday you might be gone, and maybe even forgotten. This knowledge, even when it’s subconscious, can make you do crazy things. But because Sam and Rich are adults who have been friends forever, they apologize to each other and let it go. This is one of the benefits of getting older that Better Things celebrates, both in this story line as well as the one involving Sam and her former agent Tressa (Rebecca Metz): The longer you spend on this Earth, the more you know who you really care about, and the more willing you become, rightly, to cut those people some slack.
Sam also loses control of her daughters, particularly the two older ones. Better Things has always made the point that the idea that anyone is in control of their kids is an illusion. But that point gets the bolded, all-caps font treatment this season. In the first episode, Sam lets one child go by dropping off Max (Mikey Madison) at college, then turns her attention to raising the two younger daughters, Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), who still live at home. But the natural order of things gets disrupted despite Sam’s plans. Within a few weeks, Max drops out of school and moves back home, where she and her friends start leaving pot pipes on the front stairs. And after feeling smothered one too many times by her mom, Frankie moves out of the house in the finale, causing Sam an endless amount of worry.
Toward the end of that last episode, “Shake the Cocktail,” Frankie comes home to visit. On any other show, she’d apologize to her mom and say she’s moving back in to stay. But this is not any other show, which is why Frankie announces that she’s not sure when she’s ever coming back. Let’s be clear about something: Frankie is behaving like a disrespectful brat, especially considering that she has one of the coolest mothers on the planet. If I were Sam, I would have exactly zero patience with the way she’s acting. But Better Things doesn’t exist to show us how a mom or a daughter should act, or reflect what most of us might do in a similar situation. All Better Things has to do is show us what Sam and Frankie would do. What Sam realizes is that the only thing she can control is accepting that she can’t control everyone.
She gives Frankie her space, following the advice of her therapist turned lover, David (Matthew Broderick), a man she is attracted to because he’s had “blue balls of the heart” for her since they were kids. It’s not clear whether Sam is genuinely into him, or if she’s just into him because he reminds of how it feels to be young, effortlessly attractive, and not worried about teenagers or polyps or jeans that won’t button even though they were fine a few days ago, you could swear. My sense is it’s the latter.
When Sam blows out the candles on her 50th birthday cake at the end of the finale, only two of her daughters are there. And then suddenly, again, so is her father Murray (Adam Kulbersh), who’s based quite clearly on Adlon’s own father, the late comedy writer Don Segall. “You made it,” he says to his little girl. “Now what are you going to do?”
It’s a question both jarring and hopeful. There’s pressure embedded in that query, along with the implication that Sam has no idea what she’s going to do. But it’s also a reminder that Sam, unlike her dad, still has time. She can decide what to do. Even when control is slipping away from her in some ways, she still possesses the capacity to decide what to do next.
That’s a blessing. It’s a blessing for the rest of us that Better Things, which has been renewed for a fourth season, is still on television, reminding us to notice the details and the ghosts and be grateful for the mess that inevitably comes with sticking around for as many years as we can.