tv review

Better Things Is One of TV’s Best Things

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

It is rare for a TV series to shine a full, unfiltered light on the experiences of middle-aged women. And Just Like That … tried to but mostly whiffed on the opportunity to show women in their 50s living complicated, sometimes challenging, but nevertheless fulfilling lives. But long before Miranda Hobbes ever went to a Che Diaz comedy concert, another series was telling rich, vibrant stories about a woman of a “certain age” without getting nearly the same amount of attention for it. That show is Better Things, one of the most generous, organic, and beautiful works of the past decade and one that embarks on its fifth and final season this week on FX and Hulu. If you haven’t watched before, now is the time.

Co-created, co-written, and directed by Pamela Adlon, who stars as single mom and working actor Sam Fox, Better Things excels at capturing snapshots of reality as they unfold and finding the honesty, heart, and humor embedded within the everyday. It is touching without being treacly, progressive without being preachy, and funny without hitting punch lines, because its comedy arises from the absurdity of simply existing on planet Earth. This is the rare series that will reignite your appreciation of humanity while also acknowledging that sometimes people suck.

This season, once again Sam is constantly being squeezed by the various demands that make up her days. She has her three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Duke (Olivia Edward), whom she’s still trying to shepherd toward adulthood even though the older two are basically already there. She also has to look after her mother, Phil (a wonderfully unfiltered Celia Imrie), who lives across the street and drives Sam up the wall on a regular basis. As a veteran working actor, she’s caught between taking roles she may not love and wanting to branch out into directing. (In case this wasn’t already obvious, Better Things is extremely autobiographical.) She’s still active and in good health, but she gets winded climbing too many stairs and has to check her blood pressure at home.

Basically, Sam is in mid-life and caught in the middle, sandwiched between forces seemingly larger than herself. That makes her the quintessential Generation X–er, something she alludes to more than once this season when Frankie blithely “Okay, boomers” her. “For the last time, I am not a boomer,” she counters. “I am Generation X.”

Sam is also flawed in ways that are representative of her generation. For example, there’s an ongoing thread this season in which Frankie tries to educate her mother about gender bias and using correct pronouns. In episode two, when Sam finds a pink bedazzled cell phone in a parking lot, she immediately says, “Some little girl lost her cell phone.”

“Mom,” Frankie responds, “again with the gender assumptions.”

“Okay,” Sam cracks, exasperated. “Rip Taylor lost his cell phone.”

Sam makes dismissive jokes as a defense mechanism, but eventually Frankie confronts her in a way that forces her to widen her point of view. In other words, even though Sam is a menopausal woman, she is still learning and evolving. This is one of the most valuable themes in this season of Better Things: the idea that you don’t just become a person with a bad back, reading glasses, and an aversion to Instagram as you age. You can remain curious, open to change, and energized by others. In other words: You can still be alive.

Better Things is essentially a celebration of just that: being alive and connecting with other people, whether you’ve known them forever or just met. While the series does not explicitly acknowledge the pandemic, its emphasis on the presence of friends and family is more poignant and purposeful because so many people have been isolated for so long. Adlon has a special gift for making Sam’s home feel like everybody’s home, zeroing in on details like a massive pot of borscht on the stove, or the recently uncovered old baseball cards that have taken over a dining-room table, to evoke the warmth and messiness in what might otherwise seem banal. Better Things has always excelled in scenes that take place during large gatherings, and there are several this season, both impromptu and planned, that pulsate with so much life you could swear you’re watching home movies rather than a scripted series on cable or streaming. It takes a lot of effort to make something look as effortless as this.

That’s true of the performances as well. You will never catch anyone on this show capital-A Acting. Adlon always seems fully in the moment, and so do all of her co-stars. Edward, who plays a middle-schooler and the baby of the Fox family, has essentially grown up on this series and demonstrates how much she’s matured as an actor in a story line about Duke dealing with depression; in episode four, when she confesses to a friend how detached and insecure she’s been feeling, Edward summons her words through jagged tears with a rawness that seems spontaneous and genuine. The chemistry between Sam and Diedrich Bader’s Rich, her best friend, feels similarly lived-in, telegraphing a comfort level many actors would aspire to with what appears to be absolute ease. Same goes for the relationship between Sam and Imrie’s Phil, who bristle at each other as though they’ve been practicing this their whole lives, which, as mother and daughter, they have.

Without spoiling anything, Better Things ends on a bit of a boundary-pushing note that invites the audience even more directly into Sam’s world than the show ever has before. It’s a risk, but it’s a risk in keeping with the attitude this show has maintained throughout all of its seasons, especially this last one: that life’s joy outweighs its sorrow and all of it is better when you experience it with company. The final gift this treasure of a series offers to us is a sequence that makes us feel like we’ve been part of Sam’s family the whole time.

Better Things Is One of TV’s Best Things