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"20BiTeen" is alive and well on Better Things

We don’t mean to fake you out, but there were no stills of Mer available.
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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I’m a guy’s girl. And I’m a girl’s girl.”

“Monsters In The Moonlight” provides Sam with two types of release even as the shitty working conditions on the set of the purported blockbuster film, which she’d previously observed must violate some labor laws, reach a nadir. We also, finally, get to see Doug Jones’ beautiful face sans some of the usual prosthetics. But infatuation and insurrection are the main focus of the episode, which was written by Pamela Adlon and playwright and I Love Dick co-creator Sarah Gubbins.


Where to begin? Sam’s big moments are both so gratifying and they’re both rife with possible consequences. Standing up to the idiot director and his thoughtless minions, including Nikki (Janina Gavankar), could easily lead to as much trouble as acting on her burgeoning feelings for the captivating Mer,* (Marsha Thomason) who admits to having an aversion to commitment when she and Sam go out for drinks. One thing is for sure—when Sam pulls over and slides her hands down her pants at the end of the episode, Better Things gives us a “20BiTeen” moment.

I know last week I said that Mer’s positioning as a romantic prospect seemed to come out of nowhere, but then, how does any crush begin? Sam and Mer have chemistry and a few things in common—they’re both smart, capable, and so clearly over everyone else’s bullshit. Not only are plenty of relationships rooted in less, but this third season is very much focused on exploring aspects of middle age that are mostly unseen. Sam has always been open-minded, even though she balks at the air quotes Mer puts around the label “straight” when affixing it to her. At the very least, when Mer says lesbians “don’t get enough credit for our sexual prolificness” (which isn’t a word, but so goddamn what, this flirting is fantastic), Sam looks like she’d like to know more.

Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

Adlon and Thomason also sell their characters’ connection with flirty but nearly imperceptible gestures, like a too-wide smile or lingering eye contact. Yet they’re totally at ease with each other, which is why Mer reveals which of the three “waves” of dating prospects she’d like to ride. For our edification, the first wave is all the “unavailables”: your marrieds and, I suppose, out-of-your-leaguers. The second wave is full of age-inappropriate options (though, per Mer, twentysomethings are fine for a party hookup). And finally, we have the group that holds both Mer and our Sam—the “slow burns,” the “grown people who’ve got their shit together.”

What we have in “Monsters In The Moonlight” are two slow burns who might just have met at the right time in their lives. As the cold open shows, Sam is over bad sex—or ex sex, or whatever the hell was happening under the covers and up against a tree. Conjuring up Xander’s face while she’s masturbating is inadvertent, but a mystery nonetheless. I doubt Sam has any residual feelings; it seems more likely that she just feels he’s getting in the way of her living her life. As she reveals to Duke, she knows about the phone Xander sent her, so she knows about his half-assed attempts to reach their youngest.

Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

The other source of unpleasant tension is the movie set, where Sam and her co-stars are thrown around in a car they’re not even operating as part of a stunt they weren’t briefed on by a stunt coordinator they’d never met before. Sam isn’t quite at a breaking point, but she can’t stay quiet about the unsafe conditions or the pay inequity. She isn’t just standing up for herself, though: She rattles off all of the shortcomings and code violations, including the lack of toilets. Sam isn’t even that bothered or surprised to get so little support from her co-stars and the rest of the crew. But when “people aren’t being taken care of, they’re being shit on,” there’s just no way she can keep quiet. Her passion and compassion are what makes her such a great mom and friend, even as those qualities could very well endanger her livelihood. (Given the epically shitty day on set, Sam’s little moment in the moonlight feels even more deserved.)


Sam’s efforts don’t amount to much of anything, not even a reprimand (for now). But when Nikki, the director’s assistant, tries to “you go, girl” Sam in the wake of the big speech, we get another one of the episode’s highlights. Nikki, who’s apparently been flirty with all the male crew members, applauds Sam for speaking up, even telling her she’s “brave like Erin Brockovich.” Then she utters one of the most despised phrases among femmes: “I’m a guy’s girl.” Sam, of course, dispels this bullshit notion about women who other women just don’t get for some reason: women who, darnit, can’t figure out why other women just don’t like them; something-is-wrong-with-those-other-women women. Sam’s response, after having advocated for everyone on the set, is simple, brutal, and hilarious—she tells Nikki she’s “bad at [her] job,” then describes herself as a guy’s girl and a girl’s girl. Sam isn’t going to tolerate unnecessary divisiveness, especially not when it’s founded in some sexist myth about women being inherently incapable of getting along. As “Monsters In The Moonlight” teases, Sam is prepared to play really nice with one woman in particular.

Stray observations

  • Be right back, I’m doodling “Sam + Mer” in my Moleskine right now.
  • The way Pamela Adlon framed Sam and Mer’s faces perfectly captures the tunnel vision we get when first infatuated.
  • Doing doughnuts in your mom’s mini-van in a parking lot sure looks like fun, but as someone whose dad tried to teach them how to drive way too young, I have to say I found it a little terrifying.
  • But speaking of Duke, she is really trying to outpace Max and Frankie in the obnoxious department, isn’t she? Well, maybe I should cut her some slack since, for the first time, she seemed really spooked about being visited by her grandfather’s ghost.
  • Sam being so understanding about Max dropping out of college was sweet, but I can’t get over how expensive a lark it’s going to turn out to be. Columbia ain’t cheap.
  • I Love Dick is a very good show that you all should be watching (or rather, should watch even though it wasn’t renewed).
  • For more on the year of our lord 20BiTeen.
  • Re: the asterisk, I misspelled Mer’s name previously—I thought it was “Mare” like “Mare Winningham.”

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