Driving in L.A. often means inviting a clusterfuck of rage: at the halting pace of traffic, at being stuck in a 3 by 3 cube (only for an hour if you’re lucky), at the unbearable frequency of radio commercials, at the state of the world at large. Last weekend added another vexation: the billboards for Better Things, the outstanding new FX comedy that premieres Thursday night, showing star and co-creator Pamela Adlon (or a model meant to represent her) face down and ass up on a bed. Sure, the pose captures the exhausted frustration that marks Adlon’s character’s existence. But it continues the nasty trend of erasing women’s faces from TV and movie posters and blots out everything that’s interesting about Adlon’s Sam: her three unruly daughters, her career as a working actress in L.A., the small escapes from her responsibilities that she needs to keep it all together, and the self-discipline not to smack her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), when the 16-year-old asks Sam to buy her some “clean, organic pot.” Refusing to play the cool mom, Sam declines: “These things are normal, but you should be ashamed of them, a little bit.” When her daughter refuses to get the point, Sam resorts to begging. “Hide things from me. Please.”
There’s little glamour in Sam’s life — perhaps not enough to attract new viewers via a poster.
But Better Things’s feminist and existential spin on motherhood manages to balance warmth and honesty in a way we seldom see on prestige TV. Co-created by Louis C.K., the semi-autobiographical series often plays like a female version of Louie, in which Adlon frequently guest-starred as the comedian’s slippery love interest. Here, Sam is the adoring, reasonable, frequently flabbergasted observer, and the plot-bare show is structured as a sequence of thematically related vignettes. It’s less free-form and fanciful than Louie, but it’s got just as much to say: about female bodies, single parenthood, sex (or the lack thereof) in one’s 40s, and mid-tier showbiz. And unlike in that booty-shorted billboard, Sam is usually seen in a blazer and pants, because she’s the boss of her own life — even when her daughters challenge her every move.
Better Things finds Sam clinging to her sanity while being bombarded by the dementedness of teenagers, the entertainment industry, and life. She gets yelled at by Max for showing any sign of a personality, has to shut down her super-woke middle daughter Frankie’s (Hannah Alligood) hare-brained idea to get a clitoridectomy to protest the procedure, and desperately beseeches her gynecologist for good news about her lady parts: “How close am I? Have I shut down down there? Am I a man yet? Please tell me I’m close to being a man. No more periods?” It’s a singular scene about menopause (others are devoted to abortion and menstruation), and ends with an exemplar of feminine self-effacement that could be lifted from a pointed Inside Amy Schumer sketch. “Ew, shut up!” Sam tells her doctor. “Stop talking about me!” Her life is thankless compromise, but you never get the sense that Sam is ever without love in her life. And if no one is around to do it, she can always entertain herself.
Featuring guest stars like Constance Zimmer, Lenny Kravitz, Zach Woods, and Adlon’s Californication co-star David Duchovny, Better Things’s industry satire has enough bite to feel fresh. Sam’s remembered fondly in one TV casting office: “I used to jerk off to her.” The callow dismissiveness with which her daughters react to her artistic efforts stings so badly it has to be based in truth. It’s also unexpectedly bracing to hear an actress’s potential plastic surgery discussed within the context of her children’s possible reactions to it — and how to get them to be nice to her about it.
But the show’s wiliest and most rewarding relationship, at least in the first half of the 10-episode season, turns out to be the one between Sam and her own mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street. A maddening chatterbox and a too-generous pourer of her own drinks, “Phil” is the only one Sam can depend on for emotional support. “Why’d you marry my dad?” Sam asks, while dodging questions from her own daughters about why she doesn’t call her ex. In her English lilt, Phil offers motherly advice to Sam straight from the Old World: that women should marry men who can take care of them. But neither mother nor daughter believe that wisdom to be wise anymore. Sam marvels that her daughters are on a “newer, bigger planet” now, not realizing she’s there with them. We’ll cheer for her to make her way there when no one else will.