Better Things (airing at 10pm Thursdays on FX) is going to have a rough first year. Due to the influence of Louis C.K., it’s hard not to compare this new series to Louie. Pamela Adlon stars as Sam, a sad sack single parent trying to make her way in the entertainment industry. She’s comfortable enough, but she still struggles being a single mom. The two older children are maturing in different directions, while the baby remains cute in that preteen sort of way. None of that matters, as the show is about Sam waiting for the next shoe to drop.
The pilot begins with the same kind of daily routine you’d find on an early episode of Louie. Sam is moving in and out from parental to working roles. She has to deal with inane phone calls and coping with her kids. The episode opens with a sequence that pays off in a brutal mall temper tantrum. Sam’s youngest daughter is throwing a fit over a pair of earrings while an older shopper looks on. Sam doesn’t know what to do, but she won’t let the moment defeat her. While holding the older shopper’s feet to the fire, Sam is content to let her youngest just cry it out.
The rest of the episode pings between quiet scenes of LA life, working a casting call and dealing with her three daughters. Each girl is growing up and past their mother. Sam wants to acknowledge this, but all she gets are arguments about words not said. It’s a nice touch that as the visual look between the daughters seems increasingly ill-fitting. Duke, the youngest daughter, wears clothes baggy enough to look like an early ’90s rapper. By the end of the first episode, the clothing mirrors the overall feel of the series. What you have might be ill-fitting, but it’s all you’ve got to protect you from the world.
Pamela Adlon has quite the triumph with this series. While some of her other shows feel repetitive, there’s something to being a maternal Prometheus. The lack of cohesive dialogue feeds a sense of modern domestic life. Whether it’s Sam and her eldest daughter, Max, or the phone conversation with Sophie’s dad, our lead character has no time. Everything comes out as a short dialogue burst or paid off with the noise of mundane activity.
The promise of the show belongs with not trying to sanctify single mothers. Sam wants to do her best but realizes the futility of being perfect. There are no grand lessons to be sliced out of the show and then repackaged into Upworthy social media articles. In that way, Better Things defies the Louie comparisons. So many times during Louie, the audience feels like they are being addressed as one of his kids. But Adlon doesn’t care to make the same comparisons. Her character, and maybe Adlon herself, just wants everyone to shut up for a moment.
Better Things’ Best Moments
Adlon’s kids are amazing. Quality kid actors are an elusive breed for TV. But, there’s so much going on with Max, Frankie, and young Duke.
The toilet plunging scene. A lot of comedy relies on sound rather than dialogue. This scene proves the point.
Sam dragging the cooler across the soccer field. When snack mom duties call, it doesn’t matter that your kid is sick.
The rather choice use of John Lennon’s “Mother” as the show’s theme song. Specifically, that one lyric sting – “Mother, you had me/But I never had you” – which seems to set up the thematic operative of the series.