A hand resting on a doorknob. Better to open the door, or leave it closed?
A long silence in a laundry room, between a disappointed parent and a vulnerable young woman. What words could follow this uneasy moment?
The word “No” repeated a few dozen times, each utterance more meaningful and somehow funnier than the one before. What could possibly come next? Something even more hilarious, or the end of a tentative friendship?
“Better Things,” in its extraordinary second season, knows that entire worlds live in these moments of possibility, these charged shards of everyday life.
So many twists and turns can careen into one conversation, into one moment. No one can be ready for anything all the time, but the face of Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) reflects the wisdom and weariness that arrive when you stop trying to guess reality’s next move and just buckle in for the ride.
It’s hard to break down why this season of “Better Things” is so fantastic. Laying out specific plot points doesn’t really capture it: It’s about those quicksilver moments, and the show’s ability to create an emotional impact without ever being even slightly manipulative. A couple of episodes in Season Two would easily make my list of the best episodes of 2017, and this has been a great year for TV.
As was the case last season, Sam is raising three girls with distinct temperaments and trying to sustain her career as an actress. Having been raised by a mouthy, independent and intelligent mom, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) give Sam no quarter. But they’re real; they’re not sassy TV-kid robots who exist to deliver hugs, sentiment and punchlines. One of the many miracles of “Better Things” is that each of the young actors is as committed to avoiding cutesy-ness and cliche as Adlon, the show’s creator and sole director this season.
Some of the best moments of the season depict Sam merely looking at people: Is she bemused or sitting on exhausted anger? Is she trying to hide a laugh? Is she feeling inexpressible devotion or the kind of disappointment that hinders speech? In those moments of looking, of seeing and thinking, “Better Things” allows its stories to breathe and percolate. It lets us wonder what’s coming next, and those few seconds of silence make the subsequent moment a thing to be savored. And when it comes to that perfectly timed next beat, “Better Things” never disappoints.
The show distills a normal day down to its most potent essences; scenes and arcs remain grounded and yet some contain allegorical beauty. In each story, there are gaps and crevices and silences that let in doubt, grace, uncertainty. The ending of the spectacular, perfectly paced second episode is nothing short of magical.
The masterstroke of “Better Things” is that it ignores 98% of what mainstream television has told us about how families operate and how grown women relate to the world. It is simply truthful about the ambiguous burdens of adulthood, about feeling love, exhaustion and sometimes volcanic anger for the people you can’t live without. By eschewing false sentiment and embracing uncertainty and moments of unexpected empathy, it ends up being deeply affecting.
Sam takes up space, she calls people on their self-serving bulls–t, and she cares unstintingly about her friends and her girls, but she’s not especially interested in whether other people approve of her. She makes great meals and throws fun parties. And sometimes she’s just done, and she lets her impatience run free via rants that feel like arias. When she’s sexual, it’s usually on her own terms. Once in a while, she is kind of mean (and even when she is, she’s usually right). In an episode in which she loudly asks to be recognized for all the work she does for everyone else, she’s an absolute hero.
Sam is rare on the TV scene, in that she’s a woman who’s layered and real and believably contradictory. Also unusual: She’s a mother whose approach to parenting is not treacly, condescending or obvious, nor does she believe silent, grateful self-sacrifice is a woman’s highest calling. And in defiance to the longtime rules of TV storytelling, she’s a single woman who is not necessarily in the market for a significant other. (You can just about see her doing the math: One more ego to tend? Pass.)
A study came out yesterday that confirmed that women over 40 are still rare on TV. Sam is past 40 — but she has no time for a midlife crisis. What no one tells you about middle age is that you will never be prepared for the culmination of the series of deals you unwittingly made long ago, in your relatively heedless youth.
If your parents are still in your life — as Sam’s mother Phil (Celia Imrie) is — who will they become and what will they need as you try to sustain your own family? What will your kids — or friends or lovers — need from you and dislike about you, and how will that change day to day and year to year? How many different dreams and crises will all the people in your life have? How much mental energy will it take to endure the worst of it and hang on to the things about your life that fulfill you and excite you about the future?
Nobody in this life really knows what they’re getting into when they commit to other people. And no show has ever embraced that truth like “Better Things.” If you’re a parent, a child or just a human being trying to keep it together, you will recognize the looks that cross Sam’s face. The wry reserves of laughter; the worry; the pride; the need for that second cocktail.
The unexpected is a double-edged sword: It can end up helping you cut ties you don’t need; it can also pierce your soul in the middle of the night. The spontaneous, the mundane, the annoying, the moving: They all converge to laugh at your plans and bring you something else. The look most frequently seen on Sam’s face is one I recognize: She’s not quite sure how she got here, but she’s f–king trying.
We can all relate.