In its opening moments, the Better Things season-three premiere “Chicago” finds our beloved Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) struggling to get dressed, though not because she’s beset by her children Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward), or her next-door neighbor/mother Phil (Celia Imrie). It’s the rare moment for Sam in which she’s alone: no soothing of daughters or exes to be done, no cutting remarks to defend against, no obligations to meet other than to clothe her body. But just because she’s uninterrupted doesn’t mean she’s unruffled. As she attempts to wringle into suddenly too-tight leather jackets and white jeans, Sam goes from horrified to amused—she’s both aghast and in awe of her changing body.
This revelation in a walk-in closet—handled in typically honest and wry fashion by Adlon, who once more directs every episode—marks the passage of time both in and out of the story. It’s been about 1.5 years since the second season premiered and a whole lot of shit has happened since, not least of which was Louis C.K., Adlon’s longtime collaborator and friend, admitting to sexual misconduct and retreating (all too briefly) from the public eye. The season-two finale, “Graduation,” banished the bad men from the Fox family’s lives; likewise, CK has no involvement with this third season beyond retaining his credit as co-creator. There’s no denying the role CK played in the past, as he wrote or co-wrote every episode of season two. But his presence is neither missed nor desired in the season premiere (or anywhere else in the season, but I won’t vex you with spoilers). Just as Sam realizes she doesn’t fit into some of her clothes anymore, we see how Adlon outgrew her old creative partner, though obviously, the latter is a much happier development. To further drive home the point, Sam sages her bedroom before heading out the door.
There are other big changes afoot in “Chicago,” part of which is set in my hometown, but all of which was filmed in Los Angeles (at least the recreations are accurate!). Max is starting school at Columbia College Chicago, and Sam prepares her daughter for living away from home as only she can, filling multiple shopping carts with condoms and Plan B and every feminine hygiene product and flavor of ramen you can imagine. (Incidentally, I could listen to Pamela Adlon call out convenience store items all day—she yells out “condoms!” with the same enthusiasm as a stoner stumbling upon the right bag of chips.)
But Sam knows there’s more to helping Max out of the nest than just purchasing four years’ worth of DivaCups and contraceptive foam; as we saw throughout season two, Max is equal parts excited and terrified about the future. She does briefly panic, babbling about landing the “best bed in the worst room,” which is maybe a strategy for getting the upper hand among your roommates? Sam works her magic once again, but only because Max lets her. It’s such a beautiful exchange precisely because it’s hard to tell if Max is bolstered by something Sam is saying in that moment—she doesn’t drop the Goethe quote until later—or just having her there during orientation week or something her mother did in the past. Whatever it is, Sam infuses Max with the confidence to strut through the dorm’s doors, where she will be rooming with a male student whose name is just a scribble in my notebook, sorry.
Then mother and daughter spend some time in the Windy City before the first day of school, taking in the sights and avoiding clichés like deep dish pizza and hot dog toppings. They dine at River Roast, which The Takeout EIC Kevin Pang informs me has some of the best roasted chicken in Chicago. Then they take in a show at the Green Mill, which they’re both able to do thanks to Max’s fake I.D. On just about any other show, discovering that your daughter’s been running around LA with a fake I.D. for the last two years would bring an abrupt end to this lovely sendoff. But on Better Things, the admission just brings mother and daughter closer together. Max’s cleverness pleases Sam, but there’s also the sense that, for now, Sam has nothing left to teach her. So she lets Max join her roommate and some other student, but only after getting her big “milestone, This Is Us”-level goodbye hug.
Credit to Adlon, who knows just when to pivot from swelling emotion to roaring laughter—despite her request for a tear-jerking moment, Sam kicks up her heels just as soon as she’s in first class, toasting with her fellow passengers about having “one down, two to go.” Well, first she has explain what I believe are her THINX panties to a TSA agent while a woman smugly sporting a “No Vaccines” shirt just zips through. There’s another sudden shift, as her flight back to Los Angeles is interrupted by equipment fire. Sam, meanwhile, is putting out fires of her own, talking her fellow passengers down and encouraging them to finish their alcoholic beverages before they use their airline vouchers for even more cocktails.
Sam’s trip home is so fraught that I half-expected the play that Frankie needs help reading to be an adaptation of The Odyssey; instead, it’s first act of A Raisin In The Sun. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play is just as fitting, though, with its passages describing a loving and lived-in home and a mother who remembers—and feels—everything. The way Sam throws herself into helping Frankie at this late hour proves she finds as much enjoyment as frustration on this journey.
- Welcome back to Better Things recaps! Looking forward to taking in the new season with all of you.
- “Chicago” was written and directed by Pamela Adlon, which might be why some of the best moments—the first scene communicating primarily through grunting and too-small clothing, the gorgeous black-and-white montage of photos—rely as much on what’s left unsaid as the dialogue. She knows this show in and out, and there’s no one better to guide us through these characters’ lives.
- Speaking of Sam’s day with Max, I’m posting this watermarked screenshot because it’s such a great shot of one of the most wonderfully expressive faces on TV:
- The alternate universe title for King Of The Hill is Ching Of The Mill, I think?, and Bobby Hill is known as “Rooster.”
- I want to know more about this “lawyers in space” show.
- I might have laughed loudest at the woman in the “No Vaccines” T-shirt.
- The Phil Files: She’s still holding court over her gin rummy-playing pals, but there’s at least one indication that she’s still on the decline. Her lapse in memory regarding Max’s move to Chicago definitely triggers a flicker of concern in Sam’s face.