Best Direction is a new category in the Vulture TV Awards. The phrasing is deliberate: This is not an award for best director (i.e., a specific person helming one or more episodes), but the best direction over the run of a full season. That means eligible programs included the likes of Game of Thrones, Pose, BoJack Horseman, Barry, Documentary Now!, or Russian Doll, which had multiple directors, and shows like Catastrophe, Patriot, Fleabag, or Homecoming, where one person sat in the director’s chair the whole time.
So the fact that we’re giving the inaugural award to one person doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll go to one next year. It just means that when the person is Pamela Adlon, and she’s just finished directing season three of Better Things, respect must be paid.
Rarely on TV have style and substance been as closely intertwined as they are on this half-hour series about a divorced 50-year-old actress trying to raise three teenage daughters while navigating relationships, gender and age discrimination, and the indignities and delights of 21st-century American life. Adlon is the show’s star, writer, executive producer, co-creator, and (now) sole director. She’s working in a specific mode here, something like a 1990s art-house film about recognizable people in situations that could actually happen. Despite its deliberately mundane choice of subject, Better Things was aesthetically daring over the entire run of its third season, more so than other series that had a lot more money to play with. It’s proof that a show doesn’t need a lot of money to feel big. It can feel big because it expresses itself with confidence and exactness, always looking for the most surprising yet intuitively correct way to show things.
This is a series with a mastery of TV essentials — blocking and editing conversations between two, four, eight, or more people; laying out plot information in a way that feels organic rather than blatantly expository; and showing the passage of time and the deepening of relationships in needle-drop montages. But it truly excels at moments where it shows us something in a way we didn’t anticipate.
One of my favorite examples is in episode two, in which Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, attends parent-teacher conference night with her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward), and confronts a mom whose son hurt her daughter. A traumatic flashback — a dodgeball incident that turned sadistic — is presented as an expressionistic nightmare, with distorted sound effects and tabloid-style, high-contrast, black-and-white imagery, like a playground version of Raging Bull. The approach takes the piss out of parents who act as if schoolyard altercations are crimes of the century, but at the very same time, it validates Sam’s feeling that what happened was an assault that went unpunished, and that just because there wasn’t any blood doesn’t mean her daughter didn’t come away feeling beaten up.
Every episode gives you five or six bits like this, where Adlon leads her cast and crew to make what might otherwise have seemed like fleeting moments pop, in a way that’s disturbing, peculiar, poetic, or funny, whether or not it’s all right to laugh. The interlocking, cumulative power of all the different aspects of Adlon’s talent creates not merely a look or a tone, but a worldview. When you watch Better Things, you’re seeing life through another person’s eyes, noticing things you might never notice on your own, from a perspective that surprises even after you feel as if you got the show all figured out. Adlon has deflected the “auteur” title, but if you immerse yourself in what she’s done — particularly during season three, the first made without significant input from her disgraced former creative partner, Louis C.K. — it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it would be a more logical fit. She’s doing what Albert Brooks did in the ’80s and ’90s, and what Charlie Chaplin did a century ago, but she’s doing it over the equivalent of three feature films per year, 22 minutes a week, on commercial TV. And she’s as great at it as anybody who’s ever worked this way.
A Closer Look at Better Things
1. “Monsters in the Moonlight” (Episode 4)
The fourth episode, “Monsters in the Moonlight,” ends with a long flirtation between Sam, who’s stuck on the set of a poorly run horror film, and talent manager Mer Kodis (Marsha Thomason), who’s trying to seduce Sam personally as well as professionally. Corrina Repp performs “Lightest Light” in the bar where the women are drinking and talking. Adlon pulls a David Lynch here, turning the performance of live music into a trance generator, immersing us in the moment in a nonliteral way, treating the music and lyrics as a romantic incantation. First-person-point-of-view close-ups put us inside the perspectives of both women. Time seems to blur. We don’t know how long they were sitting there in the club, and because there’s no dialogue track, we don’t know what they talked about. But it’s clear that Sam, who considers herself heterosexual, was powerfully attracted to Mer, and on the way home, she pulls off to the side of the road, leans the driver’s seat back, and masturbates as the camera rises slowly to reveal the dark horizon, city lights glimmering.
When TV is discussed, the word cinematic often gets treated as a synonym for expensive or epic. The most brazenly spectacular TV hours of the year were Game of Thrones episodes directed by Miguel Sapochnik, built around a zombie siege and a massacre by dragon fire, respectively; the sheer scale of both episodes would’ve been impressive even without the director’s confident staging of suspense and horror. But “Monsters in the Moonlight” — which could easily have been a Game of Thrones title — handles image and sound just as impressively, even though it’s working within the confines of reality. It feels big because of how the episode blocks, lights, shoots, and edits a series of moments, to make us feel as if the ordinary experience of time has been suspended. We’re following some sort of internal clock that’s tuned to emotional rather than circadian rhythms. And yet it doesn’t feel showy somehow, perhaps because the choices are rooted so strongly in what Sam is going through. It takes a special filmmaker to manipulate time and perspective so subtly that you don’t notice what she’s doing until you look back on it.
2. “What Is Jeopardy?” (Episode 6)
After suddenly being afflicted by nightmares in which her dirtbag ex-husband Xander (Matthew Glave) rapes her, Sam has a rendezvous with him in a hotel room. This is a show that doesn’t always attempt to explain why a character is doing something. It’s more often content to observe them as they follow their intuitions and feelings, and let the audience argue about why people did things, and whether it was a good or bad choice. This feels like one of the bad ones, but it’s clearly so exciting to Sam, and so far beyond her ability to resist, that we can’t say for sure. Depending on how you look at it, it could be a relapse, or an exorcism.
Sam brings a pair of stiletto-heeled boots with her, putting them on in the bathroom (furtively, like a junkie shooting up), and then removing them at the end of the sequence and dropping them in a trash can. There aren’t a lot of shots in this sequence, but they all land, and together, they add up to what plays like a sexual encounter from an ’80s or ’90s erotic thriller. There are expressionistic touches that we aren’t sure are meant to be taken literally, whether it’s the devilish altar lighting on the bed, or the naked fluorescent light tube propped on the bathroom sink. Was this hotel deliberately chosen for its glitzy-trashy-sexy aesthetic? Are these images representative of what the characters are literally seeing, or do they express their internal states, or some abstract idea of their relationship? Are we seeing what actually happened, or how it looked and felt to Sam, or some combination? These are not the sorts of questions that Better Things would answer, and that’s part of what makes it exciting to watch.
3. “Easter” (Episode 8)
Here’s another classic Better Things music montage, scored to a jaunty ’60s young-lust song titled “Candy,” by the Minneapolis band the Litter. This time, though, it’s a series of crosscutting choices that highlight Adlon’s ability to deliver pertinent character information and draw connections between people without having actors stand there and deliver speeches summing things up. While Sam cooks, her eldest daughter — college dropout and budding photographer Max (Mikey Madison) — directs an erotic photo shoot with two friends. One of those friends, the sweet and handsome Ollivier (Shak Ghacha), flirts with Max throughout and, finally, sleeps with her. The dawning attraction is sheer joy for Max, who recently endured a bad breakup. Adlon’s camera looks upon teenage attraction with affection and perhaps a bit of nostalgia, letting young people be lustful without putting them on display. She contrasts these images with Sam, who’s going through a rough stretch of middle age, feeling unattractive a lot of the time, and coming to terms with the fact that more of her life is behind her than in front of her. All together, the dancing camera, the occasional French New Wave edits, and the music combine to make the scene feel liberated and intoxicating.
By cutting between Sam and Max, the editing also compares the focus, discipline, and creativity of a mother with those same traits exhibited by her daughter. Sam takes cooking as seriously as she takes acting and parenting, and it’s clear that Max is just as serious about photography. Ollivier is attracted to Max not just because she’s pretty, but because of her drive and competence. In its way, this montage connects with the sequence between Sam and Mer, another supporting character who is drawn to the creativity and bright spirit of the Foxes.
It also calls to mind another strong moment, which is at the end of the third-season premiere. Sam returns from a trip to find her house filled with uninvited guests, and her hostile middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood) struggling to get through A Raisin in the Sun, which she waited till the last minute to begin reading. At its most basic level, this is a scene about the necessity of parents putting their egos aside and letting a moment be about their child even when they’re in a rotten mood and would rather be doing anything else. Visually, though, Adlon’s direction adds context and a dash of lyricism, the camera pulling slowly backward from Frankie’s bedroom, revealing the walls of a house filled with artwork. Because of the speed with which the camera moves, and the things it shows us, we get a warm, embracing feeling, a sense that mother and daughter aren’t just connected, but that the familiarity of the space and the entire family’s immersion in the world of the arts is a big reason why.
The Other Contenders
Style is the great budgetary equalizer. There were a lot of magnificent-looking series and miniseries that aired during the past 12 months, including Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Chernobyl, When They See Us, and Fosse/Verdon, and although these may instantly impress the viewer by being so obviously expensive, others were striking because they created a singular style on a small scale: Catastrophe, Bojack Horseman, Fleabag, and Queen Sugar. Better Things falls into this latter category, pushing a “something from nothing” aesthetic to the limit, anchoring it very strongly to one unique perspective, and turning a TV series into an expressive instrument as responsive as a paintbrush or pen. A series like Better Things is as exciting to watch as a “bigger” show because there are always at least three layers of suspense at work: What will happen next? How will Adlon present it? And what style thing will she do to surprise us, no matter how well we think we know her aesthetic?
Despite big-name outliers like David Lynch, TV hasn’t been thought of as a director’s medium until fairly recently, and even now, that description is provisional. The idea of the director as the primary author of a work of visual storytelling was always dicey, even on movie sets unified around one director’s vision, but it becomes even more problematic in series television, where complex production machines that generate seasons of drama and comedy tend to favor group efforts driven by writer-producers. (For an example, see the recent controversy over the recutting of season two of Big Little Lies.) Even when shows are directed by a small core group of people, or just one, you don’t often feel that you’re inside the mind of one person, no matter how tightly the showrunners manage to control the production.
That’s not the case here. Better Things has a mysteriously deep feeling of intimacy, coupled with a lack of pretension that disarms and reassures viewers anytime we start to worry that Adlon might be overthinking things or straining too hard to impress. It gets closer to the idea of filmmaker as author than almost any American movie or TV series produced in recent times. It feels as handwritten as its title font, a statement straight from the heart. While shows like Fleabag, Bojack Horseman, Catastrophe, and Barry all feel personal and urgent, none has the visual lyricism that Adlon brings to every minute of every episode of Better Things. The way she directs her series, you feel as if you’re inside the mind of a novelist or songwriter, being granted seemingly unfettered access to their muse.
Vulture’s sixth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in six major categories: Best Lead Performer, Best Supporting Performer, Best Writing, Best Direction, Best Miniseries, and Best Show. Eligible contenders had to have premiered between June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019.
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