Fall means an onslaught of new TV to watch, and navigating the crush of shows can be tough. But this week brings three comedies — two returning for their second seasons and one brand new — that are worth checking out. Here are some quick thoughts on FX’s Better Things, HBO’s Vice Principals, and Netflix’s American Vandal.
Better Things has gone from a very good show to one of TV’s best shows
As I watched the first seven episodes of Better Things season two, I found myself relaxing, in the way I often do when I realize I’m watching a TV series that truly knows what it’s doing. Every choice the Pamela Adlon series made — in performance, in direction, in writing — just felt right, like part of a complete vision I was more than willing to surrender to.
You could see how Better Things was trending in that direction late in its first season. It’s an obvious descendant of FX’s earlier series Louie (in that Adlon starred on Louie and co-wrote several of its episodes, and in that Louie mastermind Louis C.K. is Better Things’ co-creator), and Louie’s best season was its second. What’s more, the kind of deep-focus character work that Better Things is centered on only grows more potent as we spend more time with its characters.
But I still wasn’t quite prepared for just how good, and thoughtful, and effortless season two would feel. Adlon directed all of its episodes (which will ultimately number 10), sharing writing duties with C.K., and what’s most notable is how her vision of womanhood (and motherhood) as an unending series of minor crises that keep piling up until they feel like a major one permeates every frame. One episode opens with Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, lying in bed while two of her daughters chatter and her mind keeps flashing back to moments from the past few days. It becomes a sort of beautiful and terrible collage of everything she’s been dealing with in both her personal and professional lives.
Adlon, who’s Emmy-nominated for her performance in season one, keeps the Louie structure, in that each episode of Better Things is essentially a vignette from Sam’s life, but she both deepens those vignettes and makes them smaller. Where season two of Louie confronted big questions about life and love head on, season two of Better Things tackles them by sneaking in the side door. One episode, for instance, is about Sam’s unspoken fears of what sort of legacy she’ll leave behind, but the series never brings this idea into the text in the way Louie might have. It’s always looking for some other perspective.
And yet the show is also more comfortable with developing its characters more deeply than Louie — by virtue of how few of Louie’s characters have appeared in more than a handful of episodes. Better Things has a legitimate ensemble, composed entirely of women, and season two adds more shades to all three of Sam’s daughters and her mother, Phil, as we get to see all of them as something other than extensions of Sam.
(And here’s where I’ll note that Better Things’ first season concluded with the revelation that Sam’s middle daughter, Frankie, might be trans or nonbinary. But the character has yet to officially come out in any way, and Adlon says the series won’t be putting any labels on Frankie anytime soon, even as the series gains perspective from knowing that Frankie is figuring out all of this in real time. For now, female descriptors are still appropriate.)
Most intriguingly, this perspective means that men are, at best, nuisances in Sam’s life, and active distractions at worst. However, the series is careful never to mistake the awful men that Sam runs into as examples of every man in her life. There are relationships Sam tanks because she’s self-destructive, and there are relationships that tank because most of the men she meets are awful. It’s not for nothing that the season opens with her oldest daughter, Max, dating a man in his 30s when she’s only 16. In the world of Better Things, there are some good men, but most only see women as arm candy in their own stories.
But this is not a political series, or even one all that interested in sociocultural readings on the whole, despite being essentially one of the only shows on TV made by and featuring women at almost every level of its cast. It’s mostly about getting through the day, about getting through the week, about getting through life. It’s angry but never bitter. Joyful but never saccharine. It feels a little like magic.
Better Things season two airs Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern on FX. Season one is available on Hulu.
Vice Principals is somehow an elaborate allegory for 2017 — that was made in 2015 and 2016
Few TV shows better capture the resentment that drove so much of 2016 than HBO’s Vice Principals, a series about two white men who are angry at being passed over for a high school principal job and take out that anger on the black woman who was hired instead. Season one was simultaneously sympathetic to their plight and convinced that they were completely unhinged, and it had a surprising amount to say about everything from class distinctions to the rise of Donald Trump.
What makes this all the more surprising is that the entire series — both seasons, each with nine episodes — was filmed in 2015 and early 2016, and all of it was written before that. Somehow, Vice Principals’ creators (Danny McBride and Jody Hill, who both wear a number of other hats on the series) had tapped into something elemental in the American body politic. And that something was pissed.
I should mention here that Vice Principals is wildly original and deeply funny, but only if you can get on its wavelength. Plenty of people will find its insistence that we devote at least some sympathy to its central two characters hard to stomach in a world that seems run by barely disguised versions of them. But the deeper you get into the show — especially in its second season — the more McBride and Hill’s point begins to swim into view. Sooner or later, when you think the world has wronged you, you start seeing everything in your field of vision as something to be torn down, and that will ultimately include you as well.
In particular, Vice Principals serves as an eerie parallel for the first year of the Trump era because a lot of it is about how hard it is to actually be a leader when all you really want is to be worshipped. Now that Lee Russell (Walton Goggins) has ascended to the job of principal and (still) Vice Principal Neal Gamby (McBride) can sit back and make fart noises during staff meetings, Russell’s naked, craven need for acceptance becomes equal parts pitiable and horrifying.
McBride and Hill have said that where the show’s first season was more in the tone of high school auteur John Hughes, season two will align more with the blood-soaked, vengeance-strewn tales of Brian De Palma, and in the season’s first seven episodes, this shift in direction is very clear. Gamby, in particular, has a big score to settle, and he’s not inclined to give up, ever.
Beyond that, Vice Principals season two is beautifully shot by director David Gordon Green, and the performances (especially from Goggins) carefully walk the line between funny and infuriating. Vice Principals never tips its hand as to how you should feel about its central characters. Instead, it insists you understand them, before they plunge over the cliff. The show isn’t for everyone, but it is, decidedly, for me.
Vice Principals season two airs Sundays at 10:30 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO streaming platforms.
American Vandal pokes gentle, juvenile fun at a national obsession
The best thing I can say about Netflix’s new true crime parody American Vandal is that it understands the No. 1 rule of parody: Make sure your spoof is also a solid version of whatever it is that you’re mocking.
American Vandal might seem to be sailing in choppy waters, given how most true crime stories (Serial, The Staircase, Making a Murderer, etc., etc., etc.) deal with very, very serious crimes like murder or assault. But it gets around this challenge by treating a very silly crime — an unknown vandal spray-painting penises on all of the teachers’ cars at a high school — with all of the weight and gravitas you would expect from a more “traditional” true crime series.
There’s an unjustly accused suspect. There’s an investigation based on faulty evidence. There’s even a long, sordid examination of the sex lives of seemingly everybody involved in the story. But since it’s all based on some dumb dick jokes, it’s easier to laugh at the idiocy.
Still, even as American Vandal is building its fictional case, it’s simultaneously satirizing some far deeper ideas — like why we’re so interested in true crime and so insistent that it come to a pat “solution” when that’s not how real life works, or even the notion that most Netflix series must be padded to fill all the time they have. (Vandal is eight episodes long, with most installments in the 30- to 35-minute range, and while it definitely has some tangents that end up going nowhere, it improbably turns this quality into a good thing in its surprisingly probing finale.)
The series is strictly for true crime aficionados — if you haven’t binged Making a Murderer, you’re going to miss that half the fun is in how expertly director Tony Yacenda utilizes the cinematic stylings of it and similar projects. (My favorite touch: a completely pointless interactive 3D computer graphic used to visualize a conversation that some people have on a couch.)
But in its assemblage of footage from Snapchat feeds and other social media sources, as well as its collection of solid teenage performances, American Vandal gets at something true about our obsession with whodunits and how every generation finds a new way to commit very old crimes.
American Vandal is streaming on Netflix.