Review: Pamela Adlon’s ‘Better Things’ makes the best out of everyday moments
Louis C.K. may have put his own sitcom on hold, but he is still having a good effect on television comedy, not only by example but as a producer. His Pig Newton production company is home to Zach Galifianakis’ “Baskets” (FX), Tig Notaro’s upcoming “One Mississippi” (Amazon) and, premiering Thursday on FX, Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” a delicate if sometimes loud, profane and raucous sitcom for which he also directs and writes.
It is the return of a favor. Adlon played C.K.’s wife on “Lucky Louie,” HBO’s experiment in multi-camera comedy, and his friend and finally girlfriend in “Louie,” on which she was also a consulting producer. She offered a caustic corrective to his worst instincts – a character not without faults but decisive, or at least impatient where Louie could be weak or waffling, the smarter of the two, and the funnier.
Adlon, who is small and scrappy, plays Sam Fox, a working actress whose career, like her own, runs back to childhood. Like Adlon, she’s divorced with three daughters at different stages of development — Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) in descending order of age — and across the street lives a mother also in need of mothering (Celia Imrie, who like Adlon’s mother, is English).
Men, though not absent, are tangential to the story. “I’m dating my daughters,” Sam tells a friend. “They’re my love life.”
It’s true that we are faced with yet another sitcom in which an actor or comedian plays a version of herself or himself; it’s hard to say how many audition scenes the market will bear, as reliable as those can be. Still, it’s a long tradition, with many possible approaches – contrast the naturalism of “Better Things” with Maria Bamford’s fanciful “Lady Dynamite” – and practically speaking it gives Sam a life in which work is irregular; it lets her be with her kids and takes her away from them. It makes her think about her age, but she is too distracted to worry about it much.
I don’t know anything about the real people in Adlon’s life, or the actual life they lead – one notes the absence of household help in a moderately upscale milieu. But everything here feels lived in and actual. As in “Louie,” the kids are remarkably good; nothing they say or do sounds like the work of an adult.
They are embarrassed by and dependent on her by turns; they squabble when in close quarters, and otherwise mostly go their separate ways. Max, 16, bends rules in a house where there seems to be few to begin with, asking Sam to buy her pot. (“You’re my mom, I want you to know if I have sex or I want to get high,” she tells Sam. “Ah, no, hide things from me, please,” Sam replies.)
Frankie, who is serious enough for all of them, plays Satie on the piano, has a touch of OCD and is waking up to an unjust world, angrily; Duke is still at the stage when she sometimes wants her mother in bed with her and can be distracted from a meltdown by the promise of a hot dog on a stick. But there is more to them and if you stick around, and you should, you will be rewarded, even moved. The show is clear-eyed, even when it’s misty-eyed. “You’re still going to love your life,” Sam tells Max, who is full of doubts, “ because life is good, even at its worst.”
The show is episodic rather than serial, which frees it from trucked-in obstacles and strenuously arranged cliffhangers. Which is not to say that a character might not learn something new about herself, or suddenly see the world in a different way, or get a glimpse of what might be or should have been. But there is enough to do just getting through any 24 hours — “I wish for one boring day,” says Sam — with their ordinary crises, cross purposes and 31 flavors of exasperation, exhaustion, grief and joy.
On Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
When: 10 p.m. Thursday Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.