As Pamela Adlon’s superb series Better Things returns for its second season, enriched, its wonderful little moments more confidently evocative, all of its truisms told a little better than before, her strength as a writer and, especially, her growth as a director on display, the three key ingredients of the series remain.
Adlon knows the hardscrabble elements of parenting (while still immersed herself in being a daughter to an aging, complex, possibly unknowable mother).
As a mother raising three daughters of her own, she seemingly knows all the complications, emotional nuances and deep mysteries of girls (and by extension, kids and teenagers).
And lastly, she knows men. All the dudes, the bros the good ones, the gay ones, the maybe-sorta-worth-it ones, the unapologetic ass-hats and the average ones.
It’s a trifecta of intrigue, each adding layers to the little stories that happen to be episodes of Better Things, a series that has forward momentum almost by accident. This is a show less interested in following a narrative arc than telling stories by painstakingly focusing on lives being lived.
It is, at its core, the story of a single mother raising three disparate young girls in Los Angeles, while navigating a career and, caring for/looking after/enduring her English mother who lives across the street and, in the odd moments when there’s time and energy left, doing some dating on the side.
Better Things was created by Adlon and Louis C.K., the two going back to their Lucky Louie days on HBO but more recently and more fruitfully, Louie (where C.K.’s focus on everyday realism in characters and shunning restrictive TV norms has rubbed off, as it has on so many other series). Adlon directed all the episodes this season an impressive feat of hat-swapping given that she’s in every scene and writes or co-writes (with C.K.) every episode.
Adlon plays Sam, an actress and voice actor raising three daughters alone. They are teenage Max (Mikey Madison), middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood), who is on the cusp of becoming a teenager and trying to understand sexual identity, and Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest, who is in elementary school. Across the street lives Phil (Celia Imrie), Sam’s obstinate mother. (And yes, all of them have either shortened names or nicknames that sound male.)
Adlon is not reimagining the wheel with Better Things, but she is very much shifting the narrative of the family-based comedy. It has less to do with being harried something many other shows and writers have tackled but which Adlon and Better Things make you feel in your marrow, in a funny way. No, what’s most impressive about what the show is attempting to tackle in a pop culture discussion is the multidimensionality of being female, with an emphasis on exploding most TV precepts in the process.
Adlon gets there, uniquely, because this semi-autobiographical series allows her to be her natural self, which for television purposes is an extension of her gruff, brutally honest character Pamela from Louie, modified ever so slightly with a mother’s filter (meaning that her often frank, sometimes wince-inducing conversations and learning lessons shared with her daughters come from a place of love, where truths and realism are employed to make those daughters able to function in the world around them, instead of the more narrowly defined, often selfish or cruel attributes her Louie character possessed).
A guiding principle of Better Things is that Sam is not effortlessly balancing life and work, not confidently mastering motherhood, “adulting” or dating. She’s struggling. And that struggle is addressed head on: All the kids are getting less than 100 percent of what maybe other kids are getting (a deficit Sam acknowledges and accepts but also is slightly tormented by because it’s never far from her mind).
In that sense the starting point of Better Things is that Sam is doing the best she can while being hyper-aware that it’s not enough but whatever gold can be spun from the dross of life is a kind of magic she can be proud of. The series neither wants to be some glorified TV notion of triumphant single-mom feminist success (while remaining rigorously feminist), nor some cable version of a cynical blue-collar network show that celebrates “normal family” shortcomings as hilariously anti-elite.
Adlon’s ability to infuse Sam’s outwardly grumpy-troll personality with a sweetness that’s never far from the surface allows her to pivot from dealing with the jerkiness of others directed at her daughters to the jerkiness of her own daughters. (And yes, Sam would toss a trademarked “Eww!” at the word “sweetness”). Maybe it’s a fractured kind of empathy but Sam understands how to protect her daughters’ frailties while also employing a distinctly blunt “yeah, that’s life kiddo” mentality toward each. That’s no easy feat when navigating the spectrum from Max’s volcanic teenage moodiness to Frankie’s idiosyncratic tendencies and middle-child grievances to Duke’s simultaneous wide-eyed wonder/fear of the world.
Increasingly and more evident now in the second season (having seen the first seven episodes) Adlon is mining the concept of the “inherited mother” and living with who you’ve been given. It’s there in how Sam deals with Phil (and, in later episodes this season, Phil’s more forthright disdain of her own daughter), as it’s there in how Sam wants a little more credit from her own daughters on what she’s provided them. (You would expect nothing less from a show that uses John Lennon’s “Mother” as its theme song.)
None of what Adlon is tackling in Better Things is easy. To her credit, she chips away, episode by episode, in search of something true about what it means to be a mother, a daughter and most importantly, female. There are contradictions, reversals, gray areas no absolutes to the mystery.
In the process, and with an exclamation point so readily evident in season two, Better Things has become one of TV’s most exceptional series.
Cast: Pamela Adlon, Celia Imrie, Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Diedrich Bader, Rebecca Metz, Alysia Reiner, Lucy Davis, Greg Cromer
Created, written and executive produced by: Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K.
Directed by: Pamela Adlon