Review: ‘Better Things’ ends first season a worthy descendant of ‘Louie’

11.10.16 4 weeks ago 9 Comments

FX

A few thoughts on the end of Better Things season 1 coming up just as soon as there's a mustache in Mexico…

Pamela Adlon's entire career hasn't been defined by gender fluidity, but a lot of it has. Her first movie lead was as the title character in Willy/Milly, who wished she could be a boy and woke up the next morning with a penis. Many of her early TV roles involved her playing girls passing as boys, and she even posed as a boy in real life to audition for one of her first big jobs. And her most famous role will likely always be as middle school boy Bobby Hill on King of the Hill.

Still, when I spent a few minutes of my interview with Adlon at press tour revisiting her androgynous acting past, it was more for nostalgia's sake than because I felt it applied to Better Things, even if all the women on the show went by masculine nicknames. (Though Duke could just be Duke's name; it's not clear.) So imagine my surprise when the main plot of the finale – named after Alice Cooper's “Only Women Bleed” – involves Frankie getting in trouble for using the boy's bathroom at school, and the question of whether or not she's trans. An embarrassed Frankie denies this to Sam, but Max – who, for all her usual dramatics and selfishness, tends to be the one most tuned into what's actually going on in the family – insists, “Frankie's a boy.” 

Like a lot of Better Things – including most of the finale leading up to it – it's not a conventional piece of storytelling. We come into it pretty late in the half hour, in the midst of what feels like it's going to be a more comic subplot about Sam having phone sex with her ex. And once Sam realizes that Max is right about Frankie, the episode doesn't stop for a big discussion about what this means for Frankie, for Sam, for Max and Duke, for trans awareness or anything else. It's not about the plot, even when there is a plot. Like that marvelous sequence earlier in the episode that's just about Sam trying to get her kids ready for school, all while everyone short of a marching band traipses into and out of the house – sometimes with their relationship to the family explained, usually not – it's about a feeling. It's about capturing the sense that you've been there, whether as a parent or a child, whether your socio-economic circumstances are a lot like that of a divorced character actress or nothing like it. It's in the way that episodes could show Sam and one of the kids screaming at each other at the top of their lungs in one moment, and then cut to them warmly embracing each other, because life and parenthood and family is an emotional roller coaster like that.

So rather than tackle the Frankie questions head-on, the finale instead jumps ahead to Frankie, the kids, and one of Max's friends in the car, happily singing along to the Cooper song, cut together with  glimpses of Max interacting with all the kids at bedtime, including a heartfelt talk with Frankie that we don't need to hear, because the images are enough for now, and whatever else the show wants to tell us about it can wait for next season. These are the children of Sam Fox – two girls and what may turn out to be a boy – and she has shaped them enough to love this song (and for Max to love Joe Walsh, as we saw last week), to love each other when they don't want to kill each other, and to just about function as a family unit with her. For now, that's enough.

Of the two new FX half-hours to debut this fall, Atlanta got a ton of hype, and rightly so. But Better Things turned out to be pretty special, too. With Louis CK actively involved throughout (including co-writing the finale with Adlon, who also directed it), it's the most direct descendant of Louie among the current wave of what Matt Zoller Seitz has dubbed the Comedy In Theory, and it feels deserving of that status. Narratively, it's shaggier than even Louie at its shaggiest, but that's because it's less interested in playing with form than it is in capturing the essence of this story and how it feels for Sam to go through it. And boy, did it.

What did everybody else think, of both the finale and season 1 as a whole?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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