Five episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Earlier in the year, Judd Apatow debuted a half-hour comedy series on Netflix that centered on the very (very, very) slowly unfolding Love between two hapless Los Angeles hipsters. Played with grace and patience and alacrity, that show immensely rewarded the second thing I just listed, but it’s also hard to berate people who simply want their sitcoms to happen at a faster, more consistently humorous rate.
Those people will make it exactly 30 seconds into Better Things before bolting. Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.’s new show is many things; it’s mature, it’s well-crafted in a shaggy, aimless sort of way, and it’s got a helluva central complex character to unravel in Sam Fox, Adlon’s alter ego. But it is not exactly concise. It feels like every appropriate (and inappropriate) topic is breached in the first five episodes, from menopause to abortions to an infamous John Lennon song, but the red-hot, temperamental characters and undirected pacing, as inspired-by-real-life and a quintessential microcosm of the modern “sitcom” as they might be, work against the show more than they enhance it.
But for anyone who’s well-versed in this kind of slice-of-life entertainment, which ditches air-tight plotting for and-then-this-happened honesty, Better Things will be a welcome addition to the roster of uncomfortably truthful comedies. As I said before, a lot of that is simply because of Adlon herself (who wrote 4 of the first 5 episodes, and directed 1). Struggling to make it in an industry that’s more obsessed with her past stardom as a child actress, Sam isn’t entertaining because she meekly gets by with her shitty voiceover work in kids’ cartoons and viagra commercials, but because she can barely keep her ire and distaste a secret.
Some of that is because she has to shout 75% of her dialogue, especially when dealing with her three daughters, who range from the precocious Duke (Olivia Edward), to the manic Frankie (Riley Watson), and the rebellious Max (Mikey Madison). When things quiet down, however, Adlon gets a lot of mileage out of her expressive, humorously beleaguered facial expressions, which can’t help but advertise nearly every disgusted, tired-of-it-all emotion boiling beneath the surface. Better Things mines this winning advantage out of every prolonged conversation Sam is forced into with her overbearing mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie), the show’s most blunt comedic device: she lives next door and sometimes barges into the Fox household sans clothes.
Like with everything else on Better Things, if you’re comfortable with this level of heated and explosive personalities, the Fox children will probably win you over, too. Edward and Watson don’t have much to do besides yell at one another, but Edward does set the tone of the show in a somewhat screechy, somewhat funny opening scene set in a mall. It’s teenage Max, as played by Madison, who gets room to breathe as Better Things moves ever-so-patiently forward. Keeping up with the Apatow-ness, her relationship with Sam is energetic and truthful because of how perplexed the two are of one another. When Max claims she wants her mom to know everything about her life – sex and drug use and all – Sam balks, “Gah, no. Hide things from me, please!”
Their relationship strikes a perfect balance between effortless harmony and complete dysfunction, and is easily the core of Better Things, even when the show surrounds and buries the two under less interesting asides. The fifth episode is the best Better Things episode sent to critics, because it’s essentially centered around the dramatic push and pull between Sam and Max. It zips from the show’s most uproarious scene yet where the two dine alongside a newly-dating couple, shows intelligence in a couple of self-contained moments in a guidance counselor’s office and a bank, and goes out on a pleasant, somewhat remarkable high note thanks to one mundane life lesson shared between mother and daughter.
It just takes a while to get there, and the interim commentaries on the struggle for relevance and single parenting aren’t exactly revelatory. There’s a few funny scenes in Sam’s robustly random acting career – which ranges from alien queen to David Duchovny’s lawyer – but not much sticks. Far more at stake is your capacity for divisive, cringe-worthy humor (again, Louis C.K. is a co-creator). Case in uncomfortable point: a prolonged sequence in episode 3 centering around Phyllis’ phonetic pronunciation of the phrase “Knicker Brown” when telling a story about shopping for panty hose, all the while Sam’s director friend Mel (Lenny Kravitz) is over for dinner.
Better Things sometimes discovers the honesty in the discomfort created by such situations, but it more often fails to find genuine humor, which is a bit more worrisome. Sam’s no-filter rants can cut, but whether they’re over-this tirades in her VO booth at work, or knocking the husband of her BFF Sunny (Alysia Reiner) down to size, nothing’s ever more than chuckle-worthy.
More subtly laudatory is how the show finds occasional innovation in its format, with a few pieces of homemade video footage superseding the current story while characters continue to talk with voiceover. It can be abrupt, or weirdly understated, particularly an opening scene in episode 4 where Sam connects mom-to-mom with a homeless woman who finds her sleeping in her van. The brief flashback device adds both to Better Things‘ aggressively realistic family (maybe its biggest pro: no matter how obnoxious they are, the Foxes feel like people) and to its meandering structure, but both lend Adlon’s show a sweetness that’s hard to earn for any series this young.
All the same, the show isn’t entirely its own beast yet. It’s got parts from the likes of Louie and even The New Adventures of Old Christine, and Adlon has enough prickly charm to make headway into a more uncharted path down the line, but right now it feels simply adequate. In the high-mark fifth episode, Sam explains to Max, as they try on job-appropriate clothes, that no one knows what they’re doing, everyone is just making it up as they go along, and ultimately “all they did was put on the clothes.” Ordinary a revelation as it is, the show earns impactful moments like this because of all the dysfunction that precedes them. And, ultimately, Better Things is a bit like the subject of Sam’s monologue: a cobbled-together collection of random slices of intelligence and humor that sometimes work, sometimes don’t, that’s always true to itself, and that’s (hopefully) on its way to becoming something more notable in the future. But, for now, it’s just wearing the clothes of a better show.
A representation of all the brilliant nuances, and shaggy pacing issues, of the modern "sitcom," Better Things does get better and sweeter as it goes along, but the hotheaded, discomforting humor is bound to be divisive.