The moms of TV and film are usually either all-out terrible or somehow capable of the impossible. We’ve seen the flighty Fiona, the selfish Stepford, the narcissistic Nancy, the hateful Hattie, the oblivious Olivia… if you’re a mom on TV or in the movies, chances are you’re either really bad at your job, achieving unrealistic perfection, or are suffocating those around you with obsessive love.
None of this, frankly, is honest to the experience of being a working mother: it’s one-note, brazenly broad, and limiting to the experience and the people involved. The disparaging light through which most mothers are filtered isn’t new, but the idea that a mother can be a bit messy without being a mess—without permanently damaging the lives of the children with which she’s tasked to protect—certainly is something new. And Pamela Adlon‘s new FX series, Better Things, brings a much more compassionate, nuanced lens to the depiction. And before you ask, yes: it is still very, very f*cking funny.
FX is doing something special with comedy this season. With Donald Glover’s truly excellent Atlanta and Adlon’s Better Things, the network has promised a more melancholic, but brutally honest—and above all, funny and moving—look at life and living in the outliers. During this year’s TCA presentation, president John Landgraf made waves by announcing an incredible increase in women and people of color behind-the-scenes, particularly in the directors’ chairs. In these two new series alone it shows, and pays off in spades.
Both Atlanta and Better Things have scant few white men in them (the de-facto point of view for most television and movies), and it’s to their benefit: these are stories largely left invisible, or marred by the stereotypical way in which they’ve been portrayed for years. And in doing so, the network has allowed some seriously talented and crazy creative people to open up a new road of comedy dissection.
But Better Things lives in so much more than that. Adlon starring in her own series is, frankly, an overdue and natural progression from her best known position as a longtime Louis C.K. collaborator. Adlon’s extensive career beyond her partnership with C.K. has involved voiceover work on shows like Quack Pack (oh hell yes/never forget), Pepper Ann, The Oblongs, King of the Hill, and Bob’s Burgers, as well as live-action stuff like Grease 2, Say Anything, The Facts of Life, and Californication. And, again, pretty much anything Louis C.K. has ever done.
The intimacy and autobiographical nature of Better Things is what makes its comedy feel at once fresh and new but also familiar in that way that makes the laughs both cathartic and surprising in equal measure. (There’s a scene with a plunger, for example, that will whiplash you into chuckles, especially if you’re a woman.)
And then there’s the diversity and the cameos: the world of Better Things is populated by emotionally nuanced, richly characterized and hilarious people. Lenny Kravitz’s guest starring bit is a true stand-out. Bit parts from Zach Woods and David Duchovny also shine and bring a new perspective you wouldn’t get if, say, white men were super-populating the show; most of the other roles within the show are carried by women and people of color.
Sam Fox’s (Adlon) three daughters provide both the heart and conflict of the series (though never the resentment) as Adlon navigates her career and the raising of young women in a town—and world—like this.
But don’t assume this is some edgy Gilmore Girls. Adlon’s point of view is far more honest, intimate, and less precious than Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Stars Hollow. The relationship Sam has with her girls isn’t one-size-fits-all, nor is it trying to be. In a particularly affecting moment at her kids’ school, Sam rises higher than we, the audience, or her daughters, have come to expect. The patience and compassion she has for her children’s experience in the world may be frustrating for her, but is rewarding for us to watch.
From her kids to her coworkers and even the randos with whom she interacts, Sam’s Los Angeles feels much more in line with the actual Los Angeles you experience being in the city—both good and bad. Its depictions are surprising, brash, intimate, and unexpected in equal measure. Even in its more brutal depictions, Adlon’s collaborator on the series, Louis C.K., really imbues the humor with his own brand of idiosyncrasy, elevating an already poignant tale. It’s this perfect balance to a series that should excite anyone on premise alone, but may need a bit of convincing that this isn’t just “a mom show” (ahem). Better Things is so much more—and so refreshingly different in its point of view—than an audience may anticipate given our expectations for what it means to make a show about a single mom, that it should be required viewing. It’s thrilling to see this story told by this woman at this time.
4 out of 5 Constance Zimmer-approved burritos:
Better Things premieres Thursday, September 8 on FX. Are you going to tune in? Let us know in the comments below!