Better Things' creators seem to anticipate that you’ll judge Sam Fox’s parenting — and they make you pay for it. In the first scene, Sam (Pamela Adlon) scrolls through her phone on a mall bench while her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward), cries and pulls on her arm. It’s one of those horrible, not-even-trying-to-hide-it fake cries most parents would shut down in an instant.
When she doesn’t bother to quiet her whining kid, Sam, a working TV actress, elicits a side-eye from the elderly woman pressed into the bench’s opposite end. “Hi,” Sam deadpans, turning to face her. The fake sobs, she explains, are for “six-dollar earrings” Duke already owns. “But she wants them right now, so you should go into that store and buy them for her! Because I’m not doing it.” A beat. “Or stop looking.”
The other woman glances away.
These are the kinds of absurd and confrontational moments in which Adlon, who earned two Emmy nominations for her work on Louie, excels. Her character on that series is a prickly straight-shooting producer, uncertain of her romantic interest in Louis C.K.’s resident sad-sack comedian. The role Adlon’s created for herself in Better Things, a show she also writes and produces, gives her the chance to display more emotional depth, plumbing the chaos of single motherhood and the ups and downs of a varied acting career.
Still, Louie is a clear predecessor for Better Things, both in terms of format and tone. Louis C.K. has writing credits for the first five episodes and directed the pilot, giving loving and detailed attention to Sam’s discordant domestic arrangements. Like C.K.’s series, Better Things never fully settles into the comic. Instead it wrings a kind of wry satisfaction out of three angry tweens, a challenging love life and a deliberately sexist Hollywood. But sharp guest turns from Bradley Whitford, David Duchovny and Lenny Kravitz hint that, no matter how melancholy Better Things might get, Adlon is still determined to have her fun.
Confronted with Sam’s daughters, we could all be that old woman giving mom the side-eye — or the tortured babysitter who cries disrespect as Sam thanks her and shoves her out the door. Not since sitcoms of the ’80s like Roseanne and Married ... With Children has a show so committed to parenthood-with-a-grain-of-salt. Adlon delivers domestic plot arcs without a hint of the saccharine that seeps into most contemporary primetime family dramas — even and especially the critically beloved Parenthood. In fact, Better Things revels in its portrayal of Sam as a “bad mom.” If it continues in this trajectory, it might become a series-long retort to the smug judgment and visible frustration so many of us feel when thrown into contact with misbehaving families.
In the first episodes, Sam’s mothering tactics include ignoring, yelling, capitulating and a lot of flustered, half-hearted emotions that land somewhere between indifference and frustration. She's not much for either boundaries or consequences. But if Sam’s girls need her, and allow her the rare moment to demonstrate tenderness — like when her middle daughter, the possibly OCD Frankie (Hannah Alligood), gets the flu, or Max (Mikey Madison), the oldest, deals with uncertainty about her future — Sam rises to the occasion. Otherwise, she lets Frankie call her “bipolar” without comment and tends to match Max’s aggressive tones with aggression of her own. When she goes out of town for work, the girls — unsupervised — wind up making a mess of the house. Even though she’s furious, Sam resolutely cleans it all up.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel sorry for Sam, who in episode four manages to steal a few minutes of exhausted sleep in her minivan. Even then she’s interrupted by a homeless woman who trots out the accomplishments of her own brood. “One of them’s married in Oregon, two of ’em are working Back East. They got good lives,” the woman says, accepting Sam’s gift of a jacket and too-big shoes plucked from the back seat. “And now look at me. They leave you with nothing.”
Flashbacks hint at romance with a partner now involved with someone new but reveal little about who Sam’s hung up on. She asks this lover, via text, about his upcoming trip to town. “Alone?” she types. She’s met with two rounds of hesitating ellipses, then an excruciating silence. Apparently he won’t be alone enough to sneak off and meet. With so much thwarted romance in the air, Sam turns reluctantly to pornography but isn’t sure how to find it. “Think about what you really want, and boil it down to three words,” counsels her makeup artist on set. Sam answers with great care: “Penis. Maybe. Close-up.”
Romance — or the lack of it — more often gets the back burner to Sam’s girls, and to a certain extent, her career. In the third episode, Sam’s director, Mel Trueblood (Kravitz), expresses tentative interest, even after a racially charged family dinner with Sam’s elderly mother, a British expat played by Celia Imrie. But Sam draws a line when Mel reveals during a postdinner heart-to-heart that he’s going through a divorce. Because her other love interest remains an offscreen mystery, it’s difficult to discern Sam’s motivations for encouraging one entanglement and not the other. Both offer emotional risks and complications — and, in the case of Mel, career muddiness.
Episode four, one of the best so far, tackles the sexism and ageism of network TV with a brilliant interconnected plot. When Sam chooses to spend time with Frankie — embracing an activist streak — instead of taking on a new job, she never learns she was within spitting distance of a career-changing role. Her feelings are spared by her manager, Tressa (Rebecca Metz), who downplays the situation in case the studio proves fickle. Because of the episode’s structure, we learn what Sam never will and get a glimpse into a toxic, male-dominated industry that punishes aging or “difficult” women. Only a mind like Adlon’s could wrest something that feels like a win-win for Sam out of a potentially devastating career loss. We’re supposed to be happy that Sam decides to learn more about her daughter — happy that Sam is happy — until we remember what she’s missing out on and why.
Occasionally, Adlon seems to suggest, network TV’s shallow fascination with youth and celebrity does older actresses a favor by forgetting they exist and giving them the chance to spend time with the people they love. It’s a narrative position Better Things takes up willingly, the creators fully aware of the darkest ironies and pitfalls of the argument. From a woman like Adlon — 50, an Emmy winner and now head writer, producer and lead of her own television show — it feels like a welcome flip of the bird, too.
Better Things airs Sunday nights on FX.