Season four of Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things, created, directed by, and starring Adlon as an actress and a single mom raising three eccentric, steel-willed girls, boasts four episodes that are stone-cold classics, endlessly rewatchable and rewarding. The rest of the season is pretty good too — so nervy yet exact that it makes almost every other American TV show, even excellent ones, seem formulaic and timid in comparison. The series is filled with believably awkward, occasionally volatile, but always humane moments among Adlon’s Sam Fox and her daughters (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward) and her friends, colleagues, and exes (including her deadbeat ex-husband, Xander, played by Matthew Glave). It’s about the sisterhood of all women, particularly mothers and daughters of one kind or another; variants of the observation “All mothers are single mothers” are spoken twice this season. But it’s also about mortality, disappointment, the necessity of letting go of grudges, the difficulty of keeping hope’s embers burning, and the possibility of finding beauty and meaning in the parts of life that so many screenwriting manuals insist are inherently dull and should be avoided in favor of action, conflict, and jeopardy. The sneaky power of this series lies in Adlon’s determination to do what she’s been told not to do and point her camera at parts of the world that commercial television rarely notices.
As in certain 1970s films by directors Adlon admires, including John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, the interactions in Better Things do not feel written, directed, and edited to evoke pre-calibrated sensations, but rather like incidents that would have occurred even if the cameras hadn’t been present. You get to watch this collection of events in real time, many of them outwardly modest and ephemeral yet piercing in retrospect, such as the establishing shots of the heroine’s Los Angeles home with raindrop-speckled boughs in the foreground, the silent tracking shots of sleeping characters that open the first episode, and the images of animals, wild and domestic, sharing the house with the Foxes. (With the nearly continuous rain, the leaky roof and walls, and the presence of such creatures — including a chinchilla, a snake, an owl, and a three-legged dog — this season has a Noah’s-ark feeling, and it’s all the more effective for remaining uncommented upon.)
The poignant immediacy the show evokes throughout is rare and precious and can exist only when the person in charge has a tough yet benevolent gaze and is generous (or curious) enough to fix it on other performers as often as she fixes it on herself. Adlon gifts herself with many spotlight moments in this go-round, including a scene in which Sam silently fumes during a family gathering while watching Xander pretend to be the world’s greatest dad, and a cold open in which she tries to play Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” on piano while enduring spasms in her arthritic left hand. But Adlon is just as likely to bestow gems on her supporting players, including Diedrich Bader as her gay best friend, Rich, who is muddling through a painful breakup; Cree Summer as Lenny, whose longtime marriage is crumbling; Kevin Pollak as Sam’s pot-smoking, celebrity-impersonating Republican brother; and Celia Imrie as Sam’s British mom, an aging bombshell who still believes her physical beauty (well preserved, she brags) will allow her to say anything that pops into her head, no matter how hurtful, and escape punishment. Adlon, her actors, and her writing staff have a gift for devising what feel more like events or happenings than simple linear stories, and the low-key, anything-can-happen tension builds and twists until it finally flowers into anger, chaos, and hurt; the eventual rapprochements seem tentative and realistically not reassuring.
The sixth episode, set in and around a same-sex wedding in New Orleans, focuses on someone we meet briefly in season three (Kunal Dudheker) and another character we’ve never seen until this moment (the internet musical satirist Randy Rainbow). The resulting series of lived-in encounters with this couple, their extended families, and Sam captures the commonplace yet rarely depicted experience of unexpectedly falling in love with people you barely know, but feeling so warm and protective toward them by the end of your time together that you feel you’ve known them for years. The high point of this episode is a live musical performance of a Tom Waits song you’d never expect to see in such a setting. Adlon’s cameras focus on the moving reactions of the spectators, their tears seeming like spontaneous, authentic tokens of appreciation for the magic in the room, more so than premeditated choices.
Religion and culture are rarely discussed in this series, even in running subplots like the attempts of Sam’s middle daughter to stage a hybrid quinceañera–bat mitzvah while figuring out a way to resolve any cultural-appropriation concerns. Yet the totality of Better Things is so invested in the idea of a commonality of experience and the possibility of finding insight, even rapture, in seemingly mundane activities that its situations and images have an ethereal, spiritually inquisitive quality, suggesting the possibility of transcendence is always around us, whether we’re religious or secular, and the key is to be open to it always.
The New Orleans episode, indeed the entirety of this magnificent season, reminded me of a moment in my own life from over a decade ago, when a film I’d directed got a local premiere in my hometown. When the lights came up, I was surprised to see an acquaintance in the audience who lived on the other side of the country. He said he was in town visiting relatives but had heard through a friend that the movie was debuting and decided to come. “I figured, it’s not often that you get a chance to be present for an important moment in another person’s life,” he said, “and I should be there for this one.” Pamela Adlon is that friend. She’s starring in and presiding over a series whose deeper purpose appears to be the creation of moments that dissolve the distinction between character, actor, and viewer, making us feel like we’re all in it together, whether we realize it or not.
Better Things; FX; Thursdays, 10 p.m.; premieres March 5.
*This article appears in the March 2, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!