Better Things, a new comedy—actually funny!—from FX starting Thursday night, opens on a weeping child. Duke Fox (Olivia Edward), age 6, is standing in a mall, wailing. Her mother, Sam, played by Pamela Adlon, the star and co-creator (with Louis C.K.) of Better Things, is slumped next to her on a bench, staring at her phone. A stranger shoots Sam an “attend to your child not your electronics” look, and Sam is roused. She tells the stranger that Duke is crying because Sam won’t buy her a $6 pair of earrings that she already has at home. Would the stranger care to purchase them for her? The stranger is chastised, but her judgment lingers. Sam doesn’t cave on the earrings. Instead she offers Duke a hot dog on a stick.
In TV (as in life), motherhood is the bleachers, holding us up so we can watch something else. Even though TV moms have long since graduated from their dull ’50s obligations to get Beaver milk and cookies, the actual act of mothering (and fathering), the whirl of errands and obligations, the laundry and the cleanup, the whining and negotiating, the making food and taking temperatures still remains in the background alongside all the other workaday stuff—climbing the stairs, going to the bathroom, watching television—that TV ignores. But are all the mindless chores that make life possible, or at least full of clean underwear, really so dull? Adlon puts the domestic center stage—and then laughs at it.
In Better Things, Adlon, who is a producer on Louie, in which she also appears as Louie’s on-again off-again girlfriend Pamela, plays a version of herself. Sam is a single mother of three to Duke, 12-year old Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and 16-year old Max (Mikey Madison), whose father is mentioned but absent. Like Adlon, Sam is an actress, though as is the way with these things, she is moderately less successful, working steadily enough to pay for herself, her kids, alimony, and a nice L.A. craftsman. Her mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie) lives across the street and is of little to no help. Imrie’s casting is reminiscent of some of Louie’s more surreal choices: She has a posh British accent and nattering way that pair with Adlon’s gravelly tenor and no bullshit demeanor like caterpillars and butterflies. How does one beget the other?
Better Things dips in and out of plots and vignettes. It touches on romance and aging and show business. Sam has a thing with a maybe married guy and a flirtation with a movie director played by Lenny Kravitz. She considers getting a facelift and wishes she were menopausal already. She nearly lands the lead in a pilot and gets fired in alien make up. If this sounds a lot like Louie, it is, but Adlon has a different presence than C.K.: She’s brasher and dirtier and more confident. Better Things is less searching, less sad, more concerned with child-rearing and its all-consuming highs and lows. “My daughters are my love life,” Sam says early on, and she doesn’t mean that she never gets laid. She does. It’s that romance is the distraction; her life is her kids.
Better Things walks a fine line. It’s not cloying, though there are moments of sweetness. And it’s not depressing, though Sam does get woken from a nap in her filthy minivan by a homeless woman with whom she bonds about the tribulations of motherhood. It has a keen eye for the physical indiginities of parenting: the intimacy of unclogging a toilet, the lugged snacks, the perpetual exhaustion (“I call it Momstein-Barr syndrome,” Adlon says of her perpetual sleep deprivation, a real dad joke.) Sam doesn’t walk up stairs without lugging someone else’s pants or socks or sweater with her. When Sam’s kids are screaming over one another in the car, it’s not burnished with the halo of good feeling that accompanies such scenes in shows like Parenthood or Friday Night Lights, where a cacophony is always a choir. On Better Things it can be a headache, which often leads to more yelling. In one particularly strong set piece, Sam’s attempts to locate the beeping smoke alarm set them all off. The kids run panicked from their rooms, shrieking, as Frankie yells that Sam must “call dad.” As a fire engine wails up to the house, Sam finds herself screaming back at Frankie, “I can talk to a fireman by myself!”—parenting has reduced her to the utterances of a 5-year old.
Sam is an involved parent. She talks at Frankie’s school for women’s empowerment day. She gives Max pep talks when she needs them. She goes searching for graph paper in impossible big-box stores. But she is not a particularly anxious one. This may be why Better Things is so fun to watch: It has things to say about parenting without being caught up in the morass of contemporary “parenting culture.” (Better Things lampoons another parent exactly once, and it’s not about her parenting style.) When Sam’s kids throw a rager while she’s away on a job, she’s furious, but she’s not worried: She knows kids do this stuff. When Max asks if Sam will buy pot for her— “Don’t you want me to have good nugs?”—Sam commands: “Hide things from me.” The condom she finds on the floor in Max’s room under the nightstand goes unremarked upon, until Sam scurries in and steals it for herself.
Better Things is surprisingly funny given its particular genre constraints. Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s a semiautobiographical one with ambitions, and such shows, even when they’re great, tend to be “funny,” which goes for Louie too. Better Things has a looser, louder feel because of Adlon herself, an optimist with a bad attitude. Sam is dirty-minded and blunt, with a high tolerance for embarrassment and a nearly all-black wardrobe. But she is not one of those comedians who thinks life is pain and wrings her humor from fear, insecurity, and depression’s grip on her soul. As she tells Max, even when life is pretty bad, it’s pretty good, which is what lucky parents think.