“Better Things,” launching its fifth and final season February 28, is not the highest-profile show to have recently announced its conclusion, or the flashiest. But its time on FX has been a small-scale triumph both of art and of persistence — and a moment in TV history that seems to be flickering out of view.
From its 2016 launch, “Better Things” depicted the trials endured by Sam Fox (show creator Pamela Adlon), who struggled to balance her life as a single mother with her career as a working actor in Hollywood. The first two seasons featured writing credits by Adlon’s sometime creative collaborator Louis C.K.; Adlon, a veteran performer, had broken through to a new level of fame before the launch of “Better Things” thanks to her appearances on C.K.’s “Louie.” After C.K. was publicly accused of sexual misconduct, allegations he confirmed were true, Adlon considered walking away from the show; she returned for a third season in which she directed every episode.
As the show went on, its backstory seemed to merge with what was on the screen — which is not to say that C.K.’s misdeeds swamped it. Indeed, Sam’s perennial drive forward, her ability to keep moving through the endless small degradations of her personal and professional lives with some semblance of good cheer, made the character a sort of avatar for living through a challenging time. (That the show’s fourth season, which Adlon and FX promoted assiduously, launched in early March 2020 seemed almost fated.) Adlon proved herself as both an agile and inherently empathetic performer but also a genuinely interesting director, prying beauty and enigma out of the small moments of family life.
And “Better Things” remained itself through changes not just in the grand-scale social and cultural climate but in the TV landscape. The show itself joins a number — AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” and FX networkmate “Atlanta” — whose announced planned endings make for a small-scale end of an era. For different reasons, it’s hard to imagine any of these launching at their respective homes as new series today: AMC, for instance, seems somewhat constrained in its ambition for non-“Walking Dead”-related content, while Amazon has gone all in on genre fictions. And Netflix’s non-Shondaland hits feel, lately, more purposefully niche than the intentionally broad Duffer brothers drama.
As for “Better Things” (and “Atlanta”), the auteurist semi-sitcom closely tracking its creator’s point of view — a genre in which, though it’s difficult to reckon with now, “Louie” was a pioneer — simply feels like a form from which TV has largely moved on. The ongoing onslaught of new content has tended to reward shows that, in one way or another, speak loudly. It’s not impossible to imagine a future talent with the profile of a 2016 Pamela Adlon, one with more potential than track record and a vision of telling intentionally small stories dependent on nuance and shades of meaning, getting a “Better Things”-sized commitment, but it’s difficult.
“Better Things” is, to be clear, likely ending at the right time for reasons beyond its having outlived a moment; much of its new season did not really work for this viewer. The show’s best scenes have always been rooted in the feelings of ambiguity that parenthood and work evoke, and yet at times Season 5 of “Better Things” seemed to be actively withholding catharsis or key insights. The season’s best moments tended to revolve around Sam’s challenges as a creative person, including spreading her wings as a director for a show that represented something other than her vision and being shouted down by men in her orbit. This glimmered with specificity and with hard-won truth — Adlon had something to tell us here — and stood out on a season that’s often a bit more vague in its goals. In the main, I respected this show significantly more than I liked it for the first time.
And yet respect it I did. It’s hard not to be impressed by what Adlon, and FX, did together: Adlon dug into a perspective that was spikily hers, and FX gave her space to continue, and to do it on her own terms, even after the departure of a higher-profile collaborator. Viewers may be sad that Adlon won’t be telling stories in this precise form any longer; a greater loss might be if this show, precise and calibrated and uncompromising and rooted in the subtleties of the heart rather than the grandness of attention-getting plot, is, at least for a while, the last of its kind.
The fifth season of “Better Things” premieres Monday, February 28 at 10 p.m. on FX.