Better_Things

With ‘Better Things,’ Pamela Adlon Makes Art Out of Moving On

Plus some other random thoughts about the acclaimed FX series

To answer the question that some may be wondering about the new season of Better Things: No, there are no Louis C.K.-like characters in sight, nor are there any subplots involving powerful men behaving badly. At least with the first eight episodes made available to critics, Season Three isn’t star and co-creator Pamela Adlon’s platform to comment on her disgraced collaborator, a man whom she’s known for many years and has been her onscreen sparring partner, most memorably on his acclaimed show Louie.

I can’t blame you for being curious, though, because — and it’s embarrassing to admit — I was, too. As someone who adored Louie and Better Things — who found Adlon and C.K.’s shared prickly/bittersweet perspective on life to be brilliant, hilarious and crushing in equal measure — I couldn’t help but think of her after The New York Times published its exposé about his sexual misconduct. I didn’t want his personal failings to scuttle her Emmy-nominated show, and I wondered how she would respond.

In interviews to promote Season Three, Adlon has had to talk about C.K., which she does reluctantly. “I was his champion and he was my champion for 10 years,” she said in a recent New Yorker profile, adding that she was aware of the rumors swirling around him but that she severed ties with the comic after the revelations came out. “I haven’t spoken to him in quite a long time,” she told the magazine.

But one of the things that’s strongest about Better Things this year is that it doesn’t feel any need to comment. C.K. may have been the show’s co-creator, writing many episodes of the first two seasons, but his removal has done nothing to alter the program’s DNA. If anything, Season Three should remind everyone that this has always been Adlon’s show, shot through with her sensibility and her experiences. (She directs every episode this season, as she did last season, and she writes or co-writes most of them.) And as has always been the case with Better Things, Season Three is largely about the characters’ maintaining their equilibrium, hanging tough and moving on. In that way, she comments on C.K. by not commenting at all.

For those who know and love the show, this new season (which debuted February 28 on FX) is very much in the same vein narratively and thematically. There aren’t B stories and C stories in these half-hour episodes — rather, we just have vignettes, some more loosely connected than others. Better Things has an autobiographical setup — like her character Sam Fox, Adlon is a divorced mother of three daughters who makes her living acting and doing voiceover work — but whether or not the show’s incidents are based on actual experiences, the point is that they feel very real. These skeletal tales are deceptively slight, like they’re fragments of memories brought to life, snapshots of a mother, daughter, friend, occasional girlfriend and career woman who’s trying to keep her ahead above water.

From the beginning, Better Things has turned Pollyannaish clichés that so many people adopt as a worldview — “I’m just trying to make the best of it,” “Gotta take it one day at a time” — into a bitter, resigned truth, without forgetting that humor and occasional grace can emerge from such pessimism. Things rarely go well for Sam or her daughters: hypersensitive college freshman Max (Mikey Madison), rebellious teenage spitfire Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and melancholy young Duke (Olivia Edward). I want to avoid spoilers, but Season Three puts these characters at different kinds of crossroads, and while none of them are life-and-death urgent — at least not yet — anyone with families will recognize the show’s heavy air of accumulated stress and lingering exhaustion. Better Things doesn’t do big cliffhangers, preferring to keep the drama small-scaled and intimate. But there’s always something happening to Sam and her girls — they live busy lives and are beset by heartaches, self-doubts, resentments and even the occasional concussion — and Adlon has created art out of the daily chaos that leaves most of us desperately needing a nap.

That art, however, can’t save many of these characters from their seemingly downward trajectory. Sam’s teenagers are varying degrees of impossible — all teenagers are, I suppose — and her curt, cutting mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie) is starting to show the effects of aging. Time is wearing down Sam as well, who’s around 50 and facing the concerns that afflict “mature” women. Speaking about her limited dating prospects and changing body, she tells a female friend at one point, “I have a belly and a beard and my period. … You realize this is as good as we’re ever gonna look, right? It’s just gonna go downhill from here.” That revelation only makes Sam and her pal laugh harder, though — eh, fuck it.

What remains amazing about Better Things is its effortless ability to conjure up all the small catastrophes of everyday existence, only to shrug them off. A satisfying romantic relationship seems further from Sam’s grasp than ever, and the ups and downs of her work are proving harder to stomach. (In a few quick strokes, airhead directors and worthless production crew members are perfectly satirized.) But her hardships are depicted as being no more special or interesting than what the rest of us have to endure. In this way, Better Things nicely undercuts Sam’s relatively privileged life — she’s got a great house in the Valley and is pretty well off, but we quickly come to understand the financial and emotional burdens put on her. And with her vulgar mouth and smart-ass streak, Sam is a refreshingly ordinary person, cursing and moaning to get through the day.

But she’s also never seemed lonelier, which might be odd to say considering she’s surrounded by family and friends — not to mention the occasional appearance from her distant ex-husband (Matthew Glave) and a few doctors who cross her path. (In Season Three, men are largely absent, worthless or supporting characters.) Not that Adlon views Sam as a tragic figure — there’s too much piss and vinegar, and also too much beauty, in the character for her to be a mere sad sack.

At least through eight episodes, Season Three doesn’t reach quite the lyrical heights of past seasons, and it’s a little more inconsistent. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that, having split with her longtime collaborator and co-writer Louis C.K., Adlon is still figuring out where her adventurous, distinctive show will go next.

Yet while everyone around Sam is often flailing, she (and Adlon) remains this show’s rock, as she’s always been. The characters in Better Things are deeply flawed in deeply human ways, but again and again, the show returns to the notion that unreliable and disappointing people aren’t worth counting on — it’s the ones who have your back, no matter what, that are keepers.

For me, Season Three — and all of Better Things — can be summed up by a speech that Sam’s befuddled, beaten-down older brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) gives to Duke. “Your mother may be the greatest mother in the world,” he tells the girl. “She’s crazy and a complete pain in the ass, and annoying. But she loves you, and she would do anything for you. And the most important thing in the world — the most important thing — is that she’s there. You wake up, she’s there. You go to sleep, she’s there. You need her, she’s there — you don’t need her, she’s there. Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. She’ll always be there. And that is all that matters.”

Better Things is about a lot of things, but at its core, this envelope-pushing sitcom pays tribute to the simple act of showing up, putting in the time, dealing with the hard shit when it would be easier to balk. Everybody in Sam’s orbit — and especially Sam — is going through a tough period, but we never really worry about them. Because they’re there for one another. In a world that constantly lets us down, that certainty is the closest most of us get to knowing real love.

Here are three other takeaways from Better Things.

#1. I miss “Mother.”

When Better Things premiered in September 2016, one of the initially striking things about the show were its opening credits, which featured this song:

That’s John Lennon’s “Mother,” the first track from his 1970 album Plastic Ono Band, a record that announced his break from the Beatles and the beginning of his solo career. “Mother” is stark and raw in much the same way as the rest of Plastic Ono Band is, with Lennon moving from sweetly sung vocals to outright howls of pain as he squeals, “Mama, don’t go / Daddy, come home!”

As you might imagine from its title, “Mother” chronicles (among other things) Lennon’s difficult upbringing. His mom Julia died when he was 17, although she had long before abandoned him. (Her sister was left to raise him.) As for Lennon’s dad, Alfred (or Freddie), the musician barely had any relationship with the man, who tried to capitalize on the Beatles’ success by releasing his own single in the 1960s. It’s no surprise then that there’s a lot of pain in “Mother,” which opens with the lines, “Mother, you had me / But I never had you / I wanted you / You didn’t want me” and later features Lennon singing, “Father, you left me / But I never left you / I needed you / You didn’t need me.”

For such a well-known track, though, Adlon wasn’t aware of it until the mid-2010s. “I have this whole theory that you can discover a new Beatles song every day for the rest of your life until you die,” she said in 2017. “And that song — I freaked out and I wanted to share it with a lot of people.” In the same interview, she recalled how she and C.K. edited the pilot of Better Things while being transfixed listening to “Mother.” “We played the entire song over black,” she said. “We were like ‘How long do you think we can make this show? This is amazing.’”

Not that it was easy to secure the rights for a John Lennon song, which is pretty expensive. In a separate interview, she explained how it happened. “I wrote a very Jerry Maguire-like letter to FX, pleading for them to get the use of the song, which was way more than my budget,” she said. “I also wrote a seven-page letter to Yoko Ono and included a video package, telling her how much that song meant to me and my daughters. I took my kids to see Yoko’s band once and there was one of her films playing in which there’s a naked woman with a fly buzzing around her private parts. People were uncomfortable that my kids were there, but I told them to relax.”

It worked out, and “Mother” became Better Things’ unofficial theme, laying the emotional groundwork for a show about a dysfunctional family, although Sam is far more reliable that Lennon’s mum ever was.

Sadly, though, Season Three doesn’t feature “Mother.” Thus far, Adlon hasn’t commented on why it’s no longer being used. (There aren’t opening credits anymore, either.) I’m surprised how much I’m missing the song, which gave each new episode this jolt right at the start. From here on out, the antics of Sam’s imperfect family will have to suffice in that regard.

#2. I’m now absolutely terrified about getting a colonoscopy.

One of Season Three’s episodes revolves around Sam preparing for her colonoscopy. We tend to focus on the terror of a camera being placed up our rectum, but Better Things argues that the worst part is probably what you need to do before the procedure.

In “Toilet,” we watch Sam drink a whole jug of a solution that’s meant to empty her colon. In other words, it’s a super-concentrated cleanse, and once it works its way through her system, she’s rushing to the toilet constantly, giving her a night of incredible gastrointestinal anguish. And she has to keep drinking the formula until it’s finished.

Better Things presents a simplified, but still horrifying demonstration of colonoscopy prep. Against my better judgment, I decided to learn more by checking with WebMD, which mentions, “The method recommended for most people is called split dosing. You’ll drink a half-gallon of liquid laxative in the evening. Then you’ll get up about six hours before your appointment to drink another half-gallon.” The site warns that “You probably won’t enjoy the taste of the solution” and that “Once the laxative starts working, you’ll have frequent, forceful diarrhea. You may have cramps and bloating. If you have hemorrhoids, they may become irritated. You may also feel nauseated and even vomit.”

However, unlike Sam, you probably shouldn’t mix the solution with vodka to help it taste better.

Oh, and one other thing: WebMD recommends you have diaper cream, as well as “moist or medicated wipes to clean yourself.” Dear lord, by that point, I won’t care if a camera goes up my butt.

#3. This is my favorite Better Things scene.

With most shows, fans pick a favorite episode or season. But because Better Things contains such bite-sized moments — little scenes that are their own self-contained mini-dramas — it’s more likely viewers can tell you which vignette is their favorite. It’s hard to select just one, but I’m going with a scene from “Graduation,” which was the Season Two finale. Of course, I’m talking about the dance sequence.

First, some background: In the episode, Max is getting ready to graduate from high school, which is both exciting and scary for her. But she gets some heartbreaking news when she discovers that her dad won’t be coming to town for the ceremony like he promised. This leaves Max upset, but Sam manages to cheer her up. The morning after the ceremony, though, she tells her mom that she was a little surprised not to get a present from her. But, of course, Sam does have a gift for her — a fully choreographed performance, featuring Sam, Phyllis and Max’s sisters, of Christine and the Queens’ “Tilted.”

It’s an incredible moment that demonstrates what Better Things is capable of, not only throwing convention out the window but also not being tied down by logic. (That’s a pretty elaborate setup for this top-secret dance number — wouldn’t Max have noticed at some point?) But it doesn’t matter, because the scene speaks to the show’s massive heart and its willingness to aim for the poetic and magical.

What I didn’t know at the time was that the family’s dance was inspired by the “Titled” video, which features similar moves. “I was obsessed with this video,” Adlon said last year, adding, “I knew that I wanted to do the dance with the girls. It so happened that the graduation episode was the perfect place. From the first production meeting until the day we did it, Mikey Madison never knew about it. I couldn’t even talk about it to my [cinematographer] or anybody, without getting teary and getting chills, because I always knew it was going to work.”

Remarkably, not only didn’t Adlon tell Madison about the scene, she and the other cast members rehearsed it in private. “Because I was shooting every day, I did secret choreography on the weekends,” Adlon said. “I would go pick up Celia at her hotel in West Hollywood, and we drove to Debbie Reynolds’ dance studio in Van Nuys, and we would dance on the weekends with Kat Burns, my choreographer.”

What really makes the scene is Max’s joyous, surprised reaction to her family’s dance — a response that happened naturally. “Mikey never knew about it until the second she watched us do it on the day,” Adlon told IndieWire. “She was floored. To be able to do that on a television show, now, in this day and age, that isn’t a reality show — that’s a scripted show — to be able to procure real authentic moments, it’s an amazing gift for me and for people who watch and enjoy my show.”

It’s a small example of what Better Things does better than any other television series. And the show does it a lot.