Once in a while a television show comes along that really shakes things up and presents a fresh approach to the entertainment we’re used to. A few shows that illustrate the kind of revolutionary programming I’m talking about include I Love Lucy, Star Trek, Saturday Night Live, Ellen, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm. These are shows that have had people lingering around that proverbial water cooler so they can dish on the latest episode and predict what might come next.
The latest show to fall into this category is Better Things. If you have been under some kind of quarantine rock and have not yet discovered it, Better Things follows Sam Fox, played by the show’s co-creator/writer/director/producer/star Pamela Adlon, her three daughters, across-the-street mother, small cast of best friends and loathsome, mostly absentee ex-husband.
I just watched last week’s season 4 finale. I’ve essentially been hoarding it like the last roll of quarantine toilet paper, waiting for the perfect moment to say goodbye until season 5 premiers. As usual, the episode did not disappoint. Full of warmth and humor, Adlon hits one of her favorite themes – female aging – head on, with a tremendous amount of compassion which has become her storytelling trademark.
I’m not sure what I love most about Better Things. I love that the story, on a macro level, is set against a gritty, realistic and beautifully articulated Los Angeles. On a micro level it’s set in an older, rambling Spanish style home filled with vintage furniture, art, music, dance, literature and dimensional characters. The set, script and hugely talented cast create scenes so inviting, you want to crawl right through your screen, cozy up on an over-sized floor pillow and join the conversation.
When introducing themes like teenage sexuality, racism, gender roles, mother-daughter relationships and divorce, Adlon’s commentary is so nuanced and well-crafted it beautifully delivers strong messages with a lot of sophistication. She has the ability to depict universal human experiences with both subtle and rousing drama. In DNA (season 4, episode 4) Adlon masterfully characterizes her desire for her 20 something daughter to move out of the house while also desperately wanting her to stay.
Adlon’s ability to soulfully illustrate life’s inevitable juxtapositions might be her greatest strength. Her character, Sam, loves her big, beautiful family home but is daunted by the constant maintenance it requires. She adores her daughters but not their grabby ways when it comes to her favorite boots. She takes good care of her mother but is also challenged by her close, geographical proximity.
In general, Better Things has been a cathartic little present. It’s been a bright spot during our new, shelter-in-place, reality. I’ve drunk in the tonic of its artistry, wisdom and humor and it has soothed, entertained and bolstered me.
Better Things also stars Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie and Diedrich Bader and Kevin Pollak. All four seasons are available on Hulu (originally on FX).