‘Better Things’ Season 2 Review: Pamela Adlon’s Series Remains Essential
[Editor’s Note: There are not many good new fall TV series this year, but there are some returning gems you may have overlooked. Better Things is one of these, and if you missed out on Season 1, catch up quickly or just dive in — Chris explains why]
One might feel out of sorts as the second season of Better Things begins. As the premiere opens, Sam, played by series co-creator Pamela Adlon, is throwing a party for her friends, including her bestie Sunny (Alysia Reiner) and her mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie). Her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), has invited her older boyfriend Arturo and he has in turn brought hashish and his flirty younger brother. A first-timer to the series might not know what to make of the overwhelming tension between Sam and Max, even more so as Sam seemingly relinquishes all responsibility for her daughter. The anchor of the 24-minute episode is Max’s slow realization and confession that she wants to break up with Arturo, but Adlon never allows that to be the driving force behind her characters’ behaviors or actions, or to allow that alone to define her abbreviated narrative.
Elsewhere in the episode, Sam fields an offer of no-strings-attached oral sex and plays host while Frankie (Hannah Alligood), the middle child, sings a catchy blues number and Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest oversees a game of Truth or Dare, and that’s all before she faces off with Arturo. Adlon, who co-created the series with regular collaborator Louis C.K., sees Sam clearly as a responsible and decisive mother but its even more important that she explores all of her roles as a human being, not just the maternal one.
Though the shows are surprisingly not that much alike, one thing that Better Things and Louie have in common is their conception of memory and experience within the frame of an episode. Rather than try to deliver a single narrative in the 20-odd minutes allotted each week, Adlon splits certain episodes into elongated sequences that underline a certain feeling or perceivable truth about dating in the aftermath of divorce or being responsible for setting some semblance of an example for kids. In the second episode, the first movement involves a brutally honest state of the union between Sam and one of her boyfriends, while the second part involved an augmented getaway weekend that begins with a trip to the mansion of Sunny’s new beau. The sequences do not seem akin at first, but its clear by the end of the episode that Sam’s unmerciful dressing down of her lover has a lot more to do with her own feelings of loneliness, alienation, and anxiety than was first gleaned.
There’s no fixed end point for where Better Things can go in its second season, just as there wasn’t much of a climactic point to the first season. The liberty that this tactic and perspective gives Adlon and C.K. radiates off of each of these episodes, and Adlon’s insistence on focusing on the nuances of work, dating, parenting, and socializing gives the show a unique level of intimacy. This is as much true of when Sam agrees to go on a weekend trip with a promising new man in “Robin” or when Phyllis’ mortality becomes more visible. Whether interacting with fellow voice actors in a recording session or giving Sunny’s ex a pep talk, Adlon makes Sam’s stresses palpable and exasperating but she also knows how to convey the wild joy and excitement of a small triumph at work or meeting someone you are sincerely impatient to see again. She’s giving one of the best performances currently on television right now.
It’s important that Better Things is dedicated to showing joy rather than falling back on sentimentality. That Sam’s exhaustion with her duties as mother, daughter, and homeowner is so regularly apparent, her unwillingness to use kid gloves with her own kids so openly on display, is what makes the not-unfrequent brushes of warmth and ardor all the more fulfilling. They are often fleeting but they are convincing in that, and they are no less rewarding for only lasting so long. Such niceties never are expected in Better Things but they resonate and come from a place of hard-earned, foul-mouthed wisdom.
Better Things Season 2 airs every Thursday night at 10 p.m. starting September 14th.