Family sitcoms have come a long way since the tame jokes, canned laughter, and corny messages of such ’80s and ’90s hits as Full House, Growing Pains, and Family Ties. There are now astute and charming shows about diverse families (Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat), clever and brackish shows about dysfunctional families (Arrested Development), old-fashioned shows about hard-up families (Mom, The Ranch, One Day at a Time), and even noncomedic series that have co-opted the tear-jerking messages of family sitcoms to make you cry about dramatic families (This Is Us). If the family sitcom is often funny, sweet, and, of late, pretty sophisticated, it still gives life a cartoonish glaze. Sitcoms aren’t entirely like life, not because life isn’t funny and sweet, but because it is also sloppy and overstuffed—it doesn’t zip past with the efficiency of a well-made sitcom. So please behold the fantastic second season of the Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which looks and feels nothing like a typical family sitcom but captures the rhythm of family in a way that members of families, so almost all of us, will find deeply satisfying.
Adlon, who directed and wrote or co-wrote (with Louis C.K.) all of the episodes, stars as a version of herself, working mom Sam Fox, single mother to three girls ranging in ages from 8 to 17. Adlon disdains cutesiness and avoids almost all of the genre’s familiar clichés. The parents in Better Thingsaren’t annoying, ancillary, or both; the kids aren’t props; parenting isn’t some contained, hothouse activity taking place in the two unchanging rooms of a sitcom set. Better Things is sharp and funny. In Sam it has a tough, sardonic, spiky-on-the-outside, tender-on-the inside heroine. It contains a rousing and eviscerating monologue that could be a misandrist battle cry. And it is still, in its idiosyncratic way, a family comedy. Better Things takes a holistic view of being an adult and a mother, in which those two roles are sometimes, but not often, separate. The first episode begins with a close-up on Adlon’s face deep in thought, panning out to reveal her sitting on the toilet in a rare moment of privacy—a strategic retreat devoid of dignity that almost every parent has made. Sam’s life is only sporadically her own, and she is mostly OK with that.
It’s a testament to the mixed feelings parenting engenders that I feel hesitant describing Better Thingsas a show about parenting, though it is. It feels like selling a sleek, fast BMW by touting its reliability. Parenting: Even when you’re doing it, you’re apologizing for how tedious it is. (Sam too: When a couple tells her they don’t have kids, she agrees, “Don’t do that.”) I could just as easily, and perhaps more alluringly, frame Better Things as another distinctive and idiosyncratic female-driven comedy, à la Fleabag or Girls. It is that too. But Adlon doesn’t back-seat motherhood. As Jane Campion recently told the Los Angeles Times, on the occasion of her moody, surrogacy-themed crime show Top of the Lake: China Girl, “As a woman, sometimes you think that everything to do with your reproductive life is boring and not interesting to anybody ... But the lives of squirrels are actually really interesting. So maybe ours are too?” Adlon, her voice growly as a Mack truck in first gear, surely does not think squirrels are anything other than rats with fuzzy tails, but she is right there with Campion on the rest of it.
The new season of Better Things is taut and more focused than the last. It structurally shares a lot with C.K.’s Louie, using a number of discrete vignettes per episode instead of one well-plotted storyline. But Sam, unlike Louie, doesn’t have partial custody: Her kids are always with her, and dealing with them constitutes most of the show. Episodes are concise but full. (Because short episodes of television have become my personal kink, I must here note that one of the episodes is just 20 minutes, a gift to parents of toddlers who could wake up any second.) At just 24 minutes, the second episode contains as many memorable moments and walloping emotions as any hourlong drama I can think of. Sam breaks up with a man in a fedora in operatically vicious and deeply quotable fashion. (“Jesus Christ, why does everyone have to be so careful all the time with a man’s feelings? ... You’re supposed to be tough, but you’re just pussies!”) The episode follows Sam up to Santa Barbara for a swanky girlfriend trip that turns into an unwanted setup. Sam flees her friends for solitude at a beach motel, but then, instead of making a child-free weekend of it, she gets in her rental car, swoops down to L.A. for her girls, and brings them to the beach, the fix for the mood that ails her. “Is that dirt in my eye, or are you the most adorable human beings ever created?” is a familiar parenting sentiment, but here Better Things pairs it with what comedies often leave out: Sam’s ennui, a plaintive sadness that doesn’t evaporate when her kids arrive but only starts to feel more manageable.
The sixth episode, “Eulogy,” is structurally perfect, smashing the space between Sam the person and Sam the mom. It opens with Sam teaching an acting class. She’s an inspiring, tough teacher, all wisdom and honesty. Then we see her holed up in a sedan on the set of a car commercial, a talented, consummate pro gamely delivering take after take of the same line. And then we follow that person—the teacher, the actress, the working woman—back home, where, watching TV with her girls, she is annoyed when they channel-surf right past her commercial. “It hurts my feelings that you don’t appreciate my work,” she tells her daughters, insisting that they see her, their mother, as something more. They tease, complain, and don’t take her seriously, even as she gets angry and requests eulogies from her two eldest. Eventually, they deliver, staging a funeral for their mother. Attending your own funeral may be a hoary sitcom trope straight out of Happy Days, but Adlon’s whole gestalt, her black clothes and her raspy voice, her tough love and her exasperation, make the sweet beats feel like treats instead of a bellyache—like the largess of life, not the brainstorms of a clever writers’ room.
While teaching that acting class, Sam critiques two comedians working on a scene, telling them that as performers, they’re too good. “People are weak, they’re not cool and fast,” she says. “When you’re playing people, people want to see you at your weakest, not some asshole comedian.” Sam is cool and fast and, about her girls, just a little weak. Better Things invites us to watch that weakness, which other, gentler sitcoms would simply call love.