Here is a partial list of happenings in the season premiere of Better Things:
- Actress Sam Fox (series creator, director, writer, and star Pamela Adlon) mutters under her breath as she slaps her stomach, grabs her sides, and cycles through a closet full of clothes that no longer quite fit.
- Sam flies to Chicago with her daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), to drop her off at college, stocking up on panty liners and Plan B at the drugstore and marveling at her fake I.D. (“Cheers, Tracy,” she quips.)
- Sam and Max share a “big life This Is Us milestone moment goodbye hug” as a woman sings the blues from the club’s small stage.
- Sam gets carded.
- Sam befriends three fellow passengers (and sees the ghost of her father) when a fire breaks out in the cockpit on her flight home to Los Angeles and the plane is diverted to St. Louis for an emergency landing.
- Sam sees that her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), has gotten into a scrape in her car and tries, unsuccessfully, to confront her.
- Phil’s friends shit-talk Sam.
- Sam encounters a bunch of her kids’ friends, but not her kids, in her living room.
- Sam’s youngest, Duke (Olivia Edward), sees the ghost, too.
- For a last-minute school assignment, Sam and her middle child, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), take turns reading aloud from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
This bare bones accounting does no justice to “Chicago,” in which Adlon constructs at least three sequences of uncommon aesthetic precision, including a gorgeous, monochromatic montage of stills and short clips from an afternoon in the Windy City and a parting of parent and college-aged child far more sincere than the maudlin “twists” of This Is Us. Then again, I’ve already sung the praises of Adlon’s perceptive direction and poetic ear: It’s the series’ structure that caught my attention in the Season Three premiere, a 27-minute amalgam of situations at once anodyne and exceptional, irreverent and heartfelt, lighthearted and serious, predictable and strange, strung together only by Sam’s steadying presence. After all, this is the series’ subject: Sam is the stable axis around which her world turns.
Absent Adlon’s former writing partner and series co-creator Louis C.K.—with whom Adlon cut ties, calling his actions “abhorrent,” after he confirmed multiple allegations of sexual misconduct in 2017—Better Things, always warmer and more capacious than Louie, now one-ups its predecessor for daring, too. Where Louie garnered praise in its later seasons for aping the serial storytelling of “prestige” TV (see: “Elevator” Parts 1-6), the easygoing brilliance of Better Things stems from interest in pushing the form in the opposite direction, one it shares with HBO’s superb High Maintenance. The series are “episodic” in the fullest sense, from week to week and within each installment, pausing only long enough on a scenario to suggest its essence: After the term’s Greek root, eisodos, both offer a way into discrete moments, interactions, decisions, moods, though neither promises a way out: To be truly “episodic” is to admit that vanishingly few of the happenings from which we weave stories feature a clear beginning and end, that life is lived in medias res. When Sam chases after Max for her “milestone moment goodbye hug,” it’s not so Adlon can swipe at This Is Us, or even the trope itself. It is, rather, a ruefully funny admission that no real-life goodbye will ever be as satisfying as the fictions we see on TV.
In the case of High Maintenance, this structure is built into the series’ premise, with The Guy’s (Ben Sinclair) pot-delivering rounds serving as the link among disparate stories—stories that nonetheless suggest inaudible harmonies, humming just beneath human pitch. (At its most successful, as in the day-after parable “Globo”—for my money, the best TV episode of 2018—this technique comes closer to capturing a “collective” or “universal” experience than any broad-as-a-barn sitcom.) Better Things, on the other hand, might just as easily be the usual single-camera comedy about the trials of parenthood, with an A plot about packing Max for college, a B plot about Phil struggling to drive, and perhaps a C plot with Duke and Frankie pulling some kind of con. Of course, plenty of series already do this, and ably so; one of the highlights of the broadcast schedule is ABC’s slate of family sitcoms, including black-ish, Speechless, and Fresh Off the Boat. Adlon—the daughter of writer-producer Don Segall, with acting credits that include Growing Pains, The Jeffersons, and The Facts of Life—is more equipped than most to understand the genre’s merits and limitations, and if Better Things’ carefree deconstruction works, it’s because it comes from a place of sincere appreciation. When I profiled Adlon for Paste in 2017, she name-dropped Julia, One Day at a Time, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and That Girl as important forebears: For women in television, defying convention is the tradition.
In subdividing each episode into two, four, eight smaller episodes, Better Things continues to find new ways into the chaos of kinship, a seed first planted in the opening sequence of its Season One finale, “Only Women Bleed,” and watered with such sublime flights of fancy as Sam’s own “funeral” (Season Two’s “Eulogy”) and a family dance number (last season’s finale, “Graduation”). It’s no knock on issue-of-the-week sitcoms to say that Adlon’s approach reflects the rhythms of our days with far more fidelity, both in the scale of its conflicts—almost Seinfeld-ian in their ordinariness, for the most part—and in their refusal to arrange themselves into neat plot arcs or compatible themes. The result, as my colleague Amy Amatangelo notes, is a series that uses the family sitcom as scaffolding to create a landmark of its own: a naturalistic depiction of working motherhood that nonetheless squares space for comic excess, ghostly visitations, narrative departures, fantasies, heartaches, fears. And whether the focus is an agonizing film shoot in the California desert, “science night” at Duke’s school, or the ebb and flow of a dinner party—as in the all-over-the-map evening at the heart of the forthcoming “Nesting,” a perfect hangout comedy for people out of fucks to give—it bears the fruit of Adlon’s relaxed artistic confidence, of the hard work that goes into making one of TV’s best series look easy.
If Christine and the Queens’ refrain—But I’m actually good / Can’t help it if we’re tilted—is a fair gloss on Sam, her mother, her daughters, then—a unit that works, and works in tandem, despite being off-kilter—so are the stage directions to A Raisin in the Sun, describing a home, a family, in all its “indestructible contradictions.” “Sounds like us,” Frankie remarks, as the camera retreats from her bedroom to the top of the stairs, swinging to glimpse at the hodge-podge paintings on the walls, borrowed from Adlon’s own collection. It’s another exquisite episode in a series full of them, because it does sound like Better Things: All pretenses but living itself have long since vanished from its atmosphere, to paraphrase Hansberry, leaving only lived-in, rough-edged art.
Season Three of Better Things premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.