If you have been watching FX’s Better Things from the beginning, you’ll know that each season is its own journey. That’s not to say that there is any particular throughline or theme to be spotted around which everything revolves, but you end each season with the distinct feeling of having lived a life alongside the series’ creator and star (and writer and director) Pamela Adlon. Adlon’s Sam Fox has more and more piled onto her each season, but things never feel dark or dire, except in fleeting ways. The series doesn’t take a Pollyanna approach, either; it’s just real. And within that are a host of ever-shifting emotions: sexiness, horror, stress, fun, joy, awkwardness. The series examines life’s most mundane moments by creating an atmosphere around them that speaks to a larger emotional truth.
For a show that focuses so fully on a female experience, it’s a shame that Better Things has to still be associated with its co-creator, Louis C.K., who was obviously absent from this third season. C.K.’s (now former) creative partnership with Adlon has been a long one, and his influence over the first two seasons is keenly felt. And yet, Adlon has always found ways to make Better Things very specifically her own, and this third season is no different. By immersing herself even further into the production and directing every episode, Adlon puts a stamp on the work that is unmistakable. In Season 3 things are even more narratively disjointed than before, playing out simply as a series of vignettes from Sam’s life with her family, but it has also never felt more truthful.
The hallmarks of this excellent series remain: great musical cues, Adlon’s warmth, emotional rawness, stylish scenes, and cozy family gatherings. Most family interactions are fraught, though, especially when it comes to Sam’s three mostly ungrateful and antagonizing daughters (played by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edwards). But that is, again, a truth: teen girls are often horrible (source: I was one). Sam is annoyed by them but never gives up on them, no matter how horrible they get. She vents about them, is never their servant, yet is always supportive and available. It’s one of the most powerful examples of deep and abiding love on television; Sam doesn’t have to like her children, and they don’t have to like her. But is very clear, without ever having to spell it out, that they love each other desperately.
The first eight episodes of the new season available for review deal with Sam’s increasing stressors. She’s on a terrible and unsafe film set, her children are going in the opposite directions of what she hoped for them, her mother’s (Celia Imrie) mental faculties are deteriorating, she’s having nightmares and hot flashes and going through menopause. When she is advised to try therapy by her doctor, it’s very clear just how tightly wound she is and unable to let any of it go (as is his cavalier advice). You get the sense that if even one thing slipped and even one murky depth was plumbed, she would not be able to pull herself back up and get through everything else. She just keeps going.
Because of the fractured nature of the storytelling this season, not everything feels fully formed though. There are some threads that are naturally more interesting than others, and some points that are brought up but never addressed again. It’s a creative style that is immersive, but sometimes begs for further exploration. And while the supporting cast is always very solid, the show rests entirely on Adlon; when the story or the camera ever move away from her, it becomes less engaging.
The most triumphant pieces of Better Things Season 3 so far, though, are ones that revolve around life’s smallest moments, like getting a great toilet or having someone with you during a scary procedure. The series thrives here, especially as Sam tries to keep everything in a fine balance. Adlon has a frank and charming approach to the character that is wonderfully refreshing — Sam takes things further than most of us would, and there are consequences to that. It matches, fittingly, the key art for this season, which sees Sam lying on a ledge with the city behind her, eyes closed, hair being blown around, just taking a moment to stay steady while feeling free.
Better Things Season 3 premieres on FX Thursday, February 28th.