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FX’s Better Things transcends itself in a season 2 that feels like an antidote to awfulness

Don’t let the comedy’s Louis C.K. connection distract from Pamela Adlon’s remarkable achievement.

Better Things
Sam (Pamela Adlon, standing) cares for her daughter Max (Mikey Madison) in the Better Things season two finale.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In a terrific year for television, the second season of FX’s Better Things has been perhaps the most terrific series out there. It’s a frequently bracing, always beautiful look at life through the eyes of one Samantha Fox, played by Emmy nominee Pamela Adlon; Adlon directed all 10 episodes of the second season, and she has a script credit on all but three of them.

In particular, the season’s ninth and next-to-last episode, “White Rock,” is one of the most devastatingly wonderful television episodes of the year — a bittersweet but funny look at the legacy of family and the ways long-held secrets can become corrosive if they’re held in isolation for too long. It joins the very small list of episodes throughout TV history that could be dubbed “episodes of non-supernatural shows where a character meets a ghost, and yet it works somehow.”

Better Things is about the ways the past and future compete for our attention in the present, and how difficult it can be to navigate their demands — about how regrets and bitter recriminations from the past can swallow us whole, or how uncertainty about what lies ahead can paralyze us and keep us from acting.

It’s a series where storylines unfold across several episodes, but often in the background, where Sam might be dating a guy in one episode and then will have broken up with him in the next, where a love triangle involving both her oldest daughter, Max, and Max’s best friend plays out almost as an extreme tangent to everything else. It feels like being alive in the way so few TV shows do, where half the pleasure is in how Adlon captures, say, the easy bonhomie of old friends coming together for a graduation party, or Sam’s mother, Phil, looking back on a life tinged with sadness while playing cards with her friends.

I love this show. I love it, I love it, I love it. I want only good things for it, and I want you to love it too. But I also need to tell you that a lot of Better Things has been written by Louis C.K., up to and including “White Rock” (for which Adlon has a “story by” credit), which is one of the best scripts he’s ever written.

Better Things isn’t “a Louis C.K. show” — but his influence on it is inescapable

It feels unfair to talk about C.K.’s involvement in Better Things, because, as someone at FX recently put it to BuzzFeed’s Kate Aurthur, Better Things is Pamela Adlon’s show.

It’s important not to lose sight of that fact. C.K. has written several of the series’ scripts, but Adlon — as Better Things’ showrunner and director — had the final say on exactly what went into those scripts and how they were executed.

It’s also worth noting that Adlon issued a statement after multiple allegations regarding C.K.’s frequent masturbation in front of nonconsenting women were published in the New York Times and C.K. admitted they were true, and that statement reads, to me at least, as Adlon expressing genuine horror and shock at learning something about a friend and longtime creative partner that she had hoped wasn’t true. (Better Things will return for a third season in 2018, and per FX’s decision to cut all ties with C.K., he won’t have any hand in it.)

But it’s likewise important not to lose sight of the fact that C.K.’s presence as a frequent creative collaborator on Better Things is going to mean some viewers won’t want anything to do with the show. And for as much as I wish that weren’t true, it’s not for me to dictate viewers’ reactions. What C.K. did was monstrous, and I don’t blame anyone who wants to cut him out of their lives entirely, no matter how tertiary his role in any given production.

Better Things
Sam and her daughters Duke (Olivia Edward, center) and Frankie (Hannah Alligood) visit a relative.

Still, I’d like to posit that on the whole, Better Things is an antidote to an endless string of terrible men, one that stretches back not years but millennia. It’s a counteragent to the idea that burdens are to be carried alone, or that the ends justify the means, or that building a community of people who love you is a weakness. It is not just about learning to live with more grace, but about learning to extend that grace even to yourself, when you think you might need it most.

Adlon might bristle a bit at that description. Her character Sam is a caustic, sarcastic person, even in her best moments, and there are plenty of scenes in Better Things where Sam’s interactions with her three daughters (whose father is so absent from their lives that he’s less a person than a “to be discussed in therapy someday” watermark on each of his daughters’ hearts) might make you reconsider raising even the children you might already have.

But the show’s clear-eyed sense of human beings’ weaknesses is its greatest strength. If Louie, the C.K. vehicle that is the clearest antecedent to Better Things, was about finding moments of grace amid the muck of everyday life, about its title character’s constant failures when he wanted only to succeed (a message that seems more and more like a confession in this new, harsh light), then Better Things is about how the grace and the muck of everyday life are one and the same, and how you only succeed by failing and vice versa.

Louie and the other “golden age of television” shows of its ilk were often driven by the neuroses and fascinations of straight white men. I loved many of those shows and still love several whose creative forces have, nevertheless, since been revealed to be awful people. But these stories are not the only ones that make for great TV shows, and if C.K. was doing some of the best writing of his career on Better Things, then it’s because Adlon forced him to think about the world through eyes other than his own.

Better Things is Adlon’s show, forever and ever, and I’m confident it will be just fine without her frequent collaborator. For as similar as it is to Louie in form, it could not be more different in content. Life is just one damn thing after another on both shows, but only on Better Things is that old truism a chance to greet every morning with some mixture of sarcasm and wonder.

We all have this life, some mix of our past self and the person we hope to be in the future. That’s all we get. Somewhere in there is a gift. It’s on us to find it.

Better Things returns to FX in 2018. Season one is streaming on Hulu, and season two will be there eventually too. (If you have a cable subscription, you can watch season two on one of FX’s streaming platforms or on demand.)