When Better Things premieres this week, the half-hour comedy won’t just be trying to establish itself amid all the new (and returning) shows of the peak TV era. As the latest addition to the single-mom genre, Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical series will also have to measure up to shows like One Day At A Time, Alice, even Gilmore Girls. And before it can even think about getting off its feet for a minute, Better Things will also have to endure being compared to its spiritual-companion series Louie. But, just like its harried lead, Better Things expertly juggles all of those expectations, while also delivering a winsome new family drama.
Adlon created the series with longtime collaborator Louis CK (you can read The A.V. Club’s interview with Adlon here), and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between their FX shows. They both star as creative types and single parents of multiple daughters. But as Sam Fox, Adlon presents the other side of Louis’ family life. Sam has primary custody of her kids, so she hardly gets a break to goof off with Michael Rapaport or romance a good-looking neighbor. She’s also raising three girls who are in distinct stages of development, but who usually manage to have simultaneous meltdowns. There’s the youngest, who still worships her; the middle child, who’s trying to carve out her own bizarre niche; and the eldest, who wants to be seen to be rebelling, even if she hasn’t quite figured out what that looks like when your mother regularly holds Cougar Town-style drinking parties.
These additional responsibilities keep Better Things more grounded than its Pig Newton counterpart, though there’s still the occasional touch of the surreal, such as when Sam shouts into the void in exasperation, only to have it actually answer. But the show’s far from leaden in its pacing, as a typical day for Sam takes her all over Los Angeles, including visiting with her droll British mom, who’s played to prissy perfection by Celia Imrie. There are also several fanciful moments throughout the first half of the season, including Sam’s photo flashbacks that recall simpler times whenever her present gets too angsty. And that’s pretty much guaranteed when you’re navigating parenthood and dating, as well as chasing a dimming spotlight as a working actor.
Better Things’ treatment of Sam’s post-breakout career recalls BoJack Horseman’s brutally honest look at the kind of auditions that a burnt-out star can attract. But although Sam keeps an eye out for more prestigious projects, she’s also prepared to do take on less glamorous work, i.e., side-effects disclaimers and some treacly cartoons. The series is semi-autobiographical, so Adlon’s own voiceover career informs these scenes, but don’t expect a King Of The Hill-like project just yet. But after decades of voiceover work, Adlon’s pipes remain as pliable as ever, and it’s a treat to see her in action.
The elusive work-life balance is usually the predominant theme in a working mother-centered project, but Better Things quickly makes it a non-issue. Sam declares that she’s “dating [her] daughters” when asked about her romantic life, and later, she drops a promising pilot for the chance to bond with her middle daughter. But Adlon isn’t interested in portraying a martyr—Sam does all the things that most parents warn their kids away from, like swearing, drinking, and smoking. And when confronted about her bad habits, Sam doesn’t dismiss her kids with the old “do as I say, not as I do” directive from a parenting 101 handbook. She cops to screwing up, but urges them to do better.
Feminism is also part of Sam’s parenting model, as it presumably is for Adlon. She encourages her daughters to educate and empower themselves through political discourse, even if she hasn’t kept abreast of all the recent developments herself. Adlon wisely scatters these moments throughout the first half of the season instead of setting them aside for one very special episode. Her activism isn’t a merely selling point for the series, or a way to draw in young women viewers. It’s woven into the very fabric of the show, which was created by and is produced and written by a woman.
Vices aside, Sam is a wonderful mother. Her approach to parenting is rather guileless, as she loudly admits that she’s overwhelmed on occasion. She’s devoted to her daughters and respects their intelligence, which is why she pushes them to be good people, not just well-behaved children. But the show never veers into maudlin territory—the potential for sentimentality is invariably interrupted by some of the more realistic aspects of parenting, like struggling to find even five minutes to masturbate.
And yet, despite these more graphic moments, Better Things isn’t merely adding a foul-mouthed maternal entry to the Bad [Insert Title Here] franchise. Sam and her kids are flawed, but that just means they line up more closely with actual human beings. Adlon might be best known for her voice, but in Better Things, she puts a face on a real mom. Not the perfect, selfless invention of shows like The Brady Bunch or Leave It To Beaver, but a reflection of the tired-albeit-loving moms of the real world.