A review of tonight’s Better Things coming up just as soon as I’m murdered every day in a vague way that no one could be prosecuted for…
Sam Fox has a pretty great life. She enjoys her job most of the time, and is well paid enough to never lack for anything. She has friends who adore her, daughters who respect her far more often than not (even Max at her whiniest is a pretty good kid), a mom across the street who is sometimes useful, and almost always entertaining. Even her loser ex-husband is usually so far out of the picture that he’s not worth worrying about. Any problem she has is very much a First World problem.
So where Better Things often excels is in pointing out the ways how even things that seem to be going well can be a disappointment for Sam, and in finding enough nuance so that she doesn’t come across as entitled for wanting a good thing to be, well, a better thing.
“Robin” captures this nicely, as she befriends the title character, a fellow single parent played by Henry Thomas(*). She’s attracted to Robin — though, in a very Sam-appropriate touch, she begins masturbating while thinking of the moment where they bonded over the challenges of single parenting — and he’s nice and empathetic and plans a very sweet romantic getaway to wine country, but he’s also kind of too much sometimes, and definitely too sensitive about the trip going exactly as he planned it in his head.
(*) Thomas and Pamela Adlon are roughly contemporary, and both were busy child actors in the ’80s. He was more famous back then from E.T., where she’s worked a bit more steadily over the years and is more recognizable as an adult. He’s very good here, and it’s nice to see the two of them intersect at this stage of their careers, given how many ’80s child stars fell out of the business, or worse.
The trip is delicately squirmy in a way this show (and Louie before it) does so well, wandering in between genuinely sweet and romantic moments and ones where Sam and/or Robin are ready to hit the eject button on the whole idea. And even when Robin recovers at the venison restaurant and offers an eloquent and sincere apology for overreacting at the vineyard, the memory of earlier is still hanging over there, as you can see on Sam’s face when she retreats to the bathroom. He’s a great guy in many ways, and she is often having a blast in his company, but — like even the best parts of Sam’s life, as we see when she tries taking Max to get her drivers license her birthday — nothing is ever truly perfect, and the imperfections have to be dealt with. Sam’s approach is to confront them immediately. This works for her, especially at this point in her life, but it’s startling to Robin and suggests the whole relationship may be ruined before it’s even really started.