Entertainment » Television

Pamela Adlon's 'Better Things' Season 2 is a Meditation on Family, Love & Male Ego

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Wednesday Sep 13, 2017

The DNA of Louis C.K.'s "Louie" can be felt in almost every new comedy. The FX series is often credited as kicking off the boom of idiosyncratic 30-minute auteur-driven comedies like the popular "Master of None," "Baskets" (where C.K. is a co-creator), "Atlanta," and "Better Things." These shows aren't whacky episodic sit-coms - they're small cinematic experiences full of heart and raw emotion, told through the eyes of a singular person. Many times, episodes from these series can pack the same powerful punch in 22 minutes as an hour-long prestige drama.

C.K. co-created "Better Things" (he also serves as writer, director, and executive producer), with actress Pamela Adlon, who had a recurring role on "Louie." Though his fingerprint is embedded into the series, "Better Things" is Adlon's brainchild as she stars, writes and produces the show, with her voice front and center. The impressive first season debuted last year but Adlon pushes herself further in Season 2, which premieres Thursday on FX, directing all 10 episodes, resulting in a sweeping and confidant meditation on family, love and male ego.

Adlon, who earned an Emmy nod for Best Actress, plays Sam Fox, a version of the real life Adlon, a single mom raising three young daughters while balancing a career as a working actress and navigating her love life. In Season 2, Adlon is in full control; her point of view shining in every line of dialogue and stunning frame. While the new season continues to hilariously showcase the complex mother/daughter relationships, Adlon puts the spotlight on other parts of Sam's life. Most interesting is Sam's interactions with various men she encounters this season.

Pamela Adlon (left) and Mikey Madison in a scene from "Better Things." Photo credit: Jessica Brooks/FX

Nearly every episode of the seven provided for review finds Sam dealing with men and their fragile egos. In the first episode, "September," Sam throws a large party where her oldest daughter, the enigmatic 17-year-old Max (Mikey Madison), brings along her 30-year-old boyfriend Arturo (Arturo del Puerto) - a go-with-the-flow dude who has no problem rolling a joint in front of his very young girlfriend's mother. Sam, for the most part, is an open-minded parent who doesn't take direct issue with her teen daughter dating a man nearly twice her age - Sam says fighting her daughter over their relationship will only drive Max away. As the party continues Max, who touted her maturity in the past, confesses that she no longer wants to see Arturo and asks Sam to break up with him on her behalf.

Sam goes in full mom-mode, taking pleasure in delivering the bad news to the cocky Arturo, who initially doesn't believe her - but when she threatens to call the police he backs down like a little boy, in a very satisfying scene.

The tense second episode, "Rising," opens with Sam in bed with a man before they go to a bar for a double date - except it's not a double date, as Sam explains. She says they're not really together, completely humiliating this dude. Things go from bad to worse when Sam eviscerates him outside the bar, stomping on his ego in front of a small crowd that gathers to watch the fight go down. It's a complicated scene that dissects double standards within hetero-normative relationships; a moment in the brilliant second season that will surely spark a wave of think pieces when it airs.

The episode is also remarkable because it's split into two parts, with the second half of the 24-minute episode following Sam going on a girls' trip to Napa Valley. Sam eventually bails on her friends to spend time with her daughters in one of the most touching scenes to air on TV in 2017.

Celia Imrie (left) and Pamela Adlon in a scene from "Better Things." Photo credit: Beth Dubber/FX

Unlike contemporary comedies, "Better Things" offers glimpses into Sam's life; there are not many plot threads to follow. Season 1 did end with a cliffhanger of sorts, where Sam's daughter Frankie's (Hannah Alligood) gender identity came into question. It doesn't seem like Adlon and Co. are interested in resolving that story line just yet, which is fine. "Better Things" is better for not having a structural narrative as the show's looseness allows Adlon to take her audience through the ebbs and flows of Sam's complicated life. A good example is the serious relationship she starts with Robin this season. (Robin is played by Henry Thomas of "E.T." fame.) Instead of giving viewers a step-by-step play of their budding romance,"Better Things" dips in-and-out of their dates: We see them go away for a weekend (where, again, Sam deals with male ego in another gripping scene), Robin meets Sam's daughters during an uncomfortable dinner, and Sam freaks out over the prospect of entering a new, serious relationship. When their relationship hits a speed bump, Adlon chooses not show the actual speed bump, instead giving us its repercussions, making for a jarring yet unique viewing experience. Big events impact Sam but life goes on.

In its second season, "Better Things" is sharper than ever, exploring real life emotions and intimate stories that are simultaneously hilarious and moving. Adlon and C.K. skewer traditional network sitcoms by taking familiar beats and setups and turning them inside out. One episode follows Sam's elderly mother Phyllis (the magnificent Celia Imrie) as she deals with her deteriorating mental health. The CBS version of "Better Things" would play things broadly and emotionally manipulate its audience, but "Better Things" is rewardingly complex and opts for a non-conventional way to tell Phyllis' story.

"Better Things" Season 2 is a strong artistic statement too; it's visually beautiful with some moments echoing the talents of Terrence Malick, proving that Adlon is right at home behind the camera. It also proves "Better Things" is a one-of-a-kind and fresh series that deserves to be seen in this crowded TV landscape. Adlon's take on family, love, career, and men is a progressive step in TV storytelling and "Better Things" is an audacious series that only improves in its second season.


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