A few episodes into the new season of “Better Things,” fed-up mother Sam (creator Pamela Adlon) tries a new tactic to break up one of the countless petty fights between her daughters. Instead of forcing them apart and hoping for the best, she throws up her hands and decides to just let them go at it, as ugly as they want, for one restricted minute. “You can say anything you want to each other,” she says. “You get it all out. Say the worst things that pop into your head, anything, and then it’s over. OK?”
The proposal is so unexpected and risky that it’s hard not to gape right alongside Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), standing opposite each other, facing down the sudden prospect of catharsis. But it only takes about 30 seconds for Duke, the tinier and gutsier of the two, to deliver such a shocking stream of filth that the only thing anyone can do is laugh. And just like that, Sam was right. It’s over, and it’s OK.
This scene — tense, sweet and hilarious — is emblematic of how expertly Adlon has steered “Better Things” into becoming one of TV’s best depictions of what it means to be a family, by blood and by choice. Playing Sam, Adlon acts as a deliberate avatar of her own life as a single mother working as an actress to support her three daughters. (Aside from Alligood’s acidic Frankie and Edward’s quietly powerhouse performance as Duke, Mikey Madison plays Max, the eldest daughter, who spends this season figuring out what she wants, if it’s not the next obvious step of going to college.) Working in the roles of writer, producer and the show’s sole director, Adlon has created a unique TV world in which she can be completely frank about the granular frustrations of parenting, the powerful defiance of daughters and the realities of aging.
Season 3 follows that pattern, with one notable and unavoidable exception. This is the first season of “Better Things” Adlon has made without Louis C.K., her co-creator, longtime champion and collaborator, who admitted to sexually harassing women writers in November 2017, right before the second season finished airing. As she recently told Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, Adlon was so devastated that she almost gave up “Better Things” entirely; she also cut ties with C.K. and Dave Becky, the manager she formerly shared with C.K., who had a producing credit on the show. But with some help, encouragement from FX, and four new writers (the first besides C.K. that “Better Things” has employed), she decided to give it another shot.
That said, parsing out what might be different in these new episodes from the ones she and C.K. conceptualized is impossible. Given how closely the two worked together, there’s no way to know exactly what he contributed versus what Adlon did without having been in the room with them. But Season 3 does have some marked contrasts from the previous two — besides welcome guest stars like Matthew Broderick and Sharon Stone — that signal where Adlon as a single showrunner and auteur wants to go, moving forward.
The most apparent change is that Sam is now being more literally haunted by both her ex-husband and her late father than ever before. She sees the specter of her dad, a genial joker sporting a perpetual grin, in her moments of crisis and self-doubt. She dreams about her ex every night, alternating between stolen moments of rare affection and awful flashes of assault, weaving in and out of that nebulous space between subconscious projection and memory. And even aside from the narrative implications of Sam grappling with, as Adlon told Littleton, “the dads who disappear,” these visions are a huge stylistic swing that Adlon proves adept at delivering. No matter how bizarre the illusions get, Sam remains as dry as ever when confronting them.
As for plot, one storyline in particular signals a heightened awareness — or maybe more accurately, a pointed priority shift — toward the subject of unfair work environments. Sam, like Adlon before “Better Things,” works the kind of acting jobs that rarely get attention on TV or otherwise. This season, she’s in a splashy zombie pic helmed by the kind of ubiquitous Hollywood jerks who are almost never called out like they are here. These are the directors, producers, ADs, PAs, you name it, who don’t bother thinking about workplace conditions, common sense, or basic interpersonal decency, because no one is paying enough attention for them to care. Even if they’re not literal sexual harassers, they’re absolutely taking advantage of their positions and making things miserable for everyone. Watching Sam deal with it is excruciating; watching her eventually rip them apart for it is exhilarating.
The most amorphous but undeniable difference between Season 2 and Season 3 is that this one is far less preoccupied with mortality. Yes, the looming specters of death and decay are never far off, especially for Sam’s mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), but the new chapters are far more matter-of-fact about them. It’s as if “Better Things” stared into the void, accepted it for what it is and decided that there are more interesting possibilities in what happens next — which, in fairness, it basically did after having to part ways with one of the people who shaped it.
And so “Better Things” feels a bit freer to be its most audacious self this season. Making the show under extraordinary pressure has, in the end, allowed Adlon to throw up her hands, say anything she wants, get it all out there and succeed entirely on her own terms.
Comedy, 30 minutes. (12 episodes; 8 watched for review.) Premieres Thursday, Feb. 28 at 10 p.m. on FX.
Cast: Pamela Adlon, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, Mikey Madison, Celia Imrie.
Crew: Executive producers: Pamela Adlon, Sarah Gubbins, Joe Hortua, Ira Parker.