[This is a review of the series premiere of Better Things. There will be SPOILERS.]
FX is having a very good fall 2016 with the premiere of two new series, Atlanta and Better Things. The former got off to a remarkable start earlier this week, bringing Donald Glover back to television as writer, executive producer, and star. The series made a splash with its two-part premiere that capitalized on not only Glover’s presence, but also the incredible specificity of the show’s point of view. With its borderline dreamlike composition, watching Atlanta was like downloading another’s deeply personal experiences directly into your brain. Want to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Well, there you go.
Viewers will get a similar experience watching Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical dramedy Better Things. The new series hails from Adlon who stars, co-writes, and directs and Louis C.K. who serves as co-executive producer, co-writer, and director of the premiere, subscribes to the same model of specificity that so many successful comedies – or recent comedy-drama hybrids – like Atlanta, Louie, Baskets, and Master of None do, giving it a distinctly personal and therefore more human touch that might otherwise be missing from a more traditional sitcom.
The approach is a boon to comedians, as it allows them to draw from their personal lives in order to tell engaging, funny, and quite often emotionally resonant stories. The stories benefit from a high level of specificity that also reads as authentic. While Louis C.K.’s Louie popularized this kind of personal specificity recently and could be credited with elevating it to heretofore-unreached levels of artistry, it’s nothing new. But with so much television being made nowadays, there are more and more opportunities for artists like Adlon, Glover, Aziz Ansari and so on to use the medium as a way to tell autobiographical stories in a way that might not have been possible just a few years prior.
With Better Things, Adlon doesn’t shy away from using her personal life as the blueprint for her new series. A lifelong actor and voiceover artist, Adlon grew up in the entertainment industry, which gives her character Sam Fox the kind of immediate specificity a series needs, especially when the premiere is as given to Louie-esque digressions as this one is. Like Adlon, Sam is, in addition to being an actor and voiceover artist, a single mother with three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward). The relationship between the four is the sort of constant battle of boundaries and rules common to mother-daughter relationships on television. It’s contentious at times – the depiction of her children in the first episode alone could serve as potent birth control – as Sam’s daughters afford her little in terms of privacy or peace of mind, demanding her attention at bedtime, ignoring her pleas for personal space, or asking if she’ll purchase pot for them.
But Better Things doesn’t spend all of its time exploring the argumentative side of parenthood; its relaxed narrative isn’t interested in focusing on little domestic quarrels between teenagers and their mothers. Each episode is comprised of loose pieces that make up a whole, providing greater freedom and flexibility to move around from one idea to another. An argument with a child one minute will lead to a loving embrace or wry smile from Adlon the next, without the need for exposition. This yadda-yadda-ing of interactions means the series can focus on making scenes land the way they want instead of making sure all the connective tissue between them is there and working properly. Excising certain transitions, then, or breaking away from the more typical (but now far less typical) rules of television, makes room for the sort of expressions that help color the series in a way that puts a stamp on it beyond the appeal of autobiography. Some of the best moments in the series’ early episodes are when it slows to savor a particular song or the camera lingers on Adlon’s face or the face of her eldest daughter who knows she’s gotten away with something just a bit too long.
Specificity may be the name of the game, but there are times when Better Things gets too specific in a single episode. The series is set in Los Angeles and revolves around a working actor, so there’s a reasonable expectation that certain elements from the entertainment industry will waft in and out of the narrative from time to time. The premiere alone features a cameo from Constance Zimmer and Julie Bowen – the joke being Adlon and Zimmer don’t bother reading for a part when they see Bowen leave from a meeting with the casting director. Adlon’s interaction with both is limited to a brief conversation with Zimmer – who is never addressed directly by name – but there’s something jarring about the particular way the series blurs the lines between fiction and reality, despite that being the conceit the show. The cameos continue in later episodes, and while they’re often funny in a “hey, look who it is” kind of way, it’s also fascinating in its superficiality.
In the end, Better Things is another strong comedy from FX that sees the network off to a great start this fall (though that’s increasingly become as loose a term as Summer Movie Season) following the critical reception of both You’re the Worst season 3 and the premiere of Atlanta. They’re all very different shows in terms of tone and how they function, but they all operate on a distinctly personal level that makes them one in the same. It’s the sort of commonality more networks should strive towards.
Better Things continues next Thursday with ‘Period’ @10pm on FX.
Photos: Colleen Hayes/FX