It’s Time — Sob- To Put Away Better Things
Pamela Adlon’s Superb Comedy Begins Its Final Season
During the last five years one of the quiet joys of television has been Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, a more or less autobiographical comic series about herself. The last few years have been the era of Peak TV and the female hyphenate — Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Natasha Lyonne and Issa Rae to mention the comedians who have written, directed and starred in great comedy series to enormous acclaim and usually multiple award nominations. Left in the dust far too often has been Adlon, and it’s hard to tell why. Part may be, however unfairly, her association with Louis C.K. a colleague and close friend who co-created Better Things, and even though he has had no association with it since Season 2, still has his name as a producer credit. Part of it is, unlike so many of these comedy series, there’s no hook — no minority women, no mystery box conception; it’s basically a slice of life series like, well it needs to be said, shows like Louie were.
All of these are valid reasons for the last of awards, but I think the most basic one is that Adlon is viewed in the creative community like Sam Fox is on Better Things; she’s very good but she’s not special in the way so many of these other female hyphenates are. But as the years have gone by for both the series and the protagonist, I’ve come to appreciate the quiet subtlety of it and the very gentle ways it pokes, with great humor and sadness, about the life of a fifty-something single mother. In many ways, Sam is the polar opposite of Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm — in every situation she does what is considering the right thing, certainly by society’s standards, and she is met with at best indifference and at worse, open disdain. What makes this more painful is that the majority of the people who don’t appreciate Sam are her own family. This has become increasingly clear in the two episode opening of Season 5.
Sam went with her oldest daughter Max to see an apartment that was five stories up, had no air conditioning and a terrible view. With no negotiation Duke said she’d take it and in the next scene was furious with her for not having good credit. She then when with her brother (the always wonderful Kevin Pollak) to have her family history read, was upset when he brought his new wife, and when she learned that their maternal grandmother had an affair and that the man they’d assumed was their grandfather for decades was not that person, Kevin’s reaction was simply: “She knew.” She was talking of Phil, who has spent the entire series being arguably the worst mother in television history… yes by comparison Livia Soprano and Betty Draper were far better because at least at one point they loved their children. When Sam confronts her on this decades’ old secret, Phil does what she always does and shrugs it off: “What does it matter? They’re all dead.” Then she goes about the matter of disposing every element of her history as if she were throwing out the garbage, ignoring as always Sam’s requests to hold on to it. Then she had dinner with the genius daughter Frankie to celebrate her boyfriend getting into Harvard; the parents got drunk, the boyfriend’s mother turned maudlin. When Sam tried to praise her daughter for what she’s accomplished, she basically shrugged it off.
In the second episode, Sam learned purely by accident that Phil had been scammed off nearly $7000 by one of those phone scams that particularly plagued seniors. This was horrible to learn for Sam, and it was even worse to know that Frankie had basically ‘handled’ the entire situation, because she considered her Mom’s reactions out of proportion like always’ and basically consider Phil ‘another sister’.
I read recently a long article on line how recent series like Euphoria and Succession have added to the picture of just how toxic and dysfunctional the family environment is. In a way the message that Adlon has been telling for the last five seasons is more dispiriting. It says you can be a mother with no support, sacrifice everything for your children, see them through all the terrible decisions they make (and there may be more to come; in the teaser of the Season Premiere we saw Max taking a pregnancy test) and for all your efforts, your children may not only respect your decision or even show thanks, but spend more time with the mother who made every single minute of her life trying to make your own childhood and adulthood miserable. It’s remarkable that in the five seasons I’ve never seen Sam break down crying or truly get angry at any of her children. What Adlon has done has shown in a permanent case of dissatisfaction, always being dismissed, celebrating the few victories of her life –including the final minutes of the second episode, where she made a critical decision about her career — totally alone.
Better Things can be depressing, no question. But it can also be wonderfully funny. Adlon’s sense of sarcastic humor is present in almost every time she’s onscreen, and the quiet frustration she’s always showing almost every minute is endearing. The audience is always with her, even though it seems the entire world never is.
The traditional ending of any series in Peak TV usually ends with some climatic event. Is it possible that all the years of frustration and rage Sam has pent up for decades will finally come out and she will finally burn a bridge too far with her daughters or (more likely) Phil? Will the series end with Phil finally dying or a birth? (We still don’t know the result of that pregnancy test.) While that is possible, it would basically go against everything that Adlon has done on Better Things the last five years. I expect the series to go out on a quiet moment, maybe of triumph (there are finally signs Sam may be progress in her career much like Adlon has been doing here), more likely of the status quo. I do know that one way or another the show and Adlon deserve the same recognition that so many of her fellow hyphenates have by the Emmys. Adlon deserves it — and so does Sam.
My score: 5 stars.