“White Rock,” last week’s episode of Better Things, was fantastic. As Pamela Adlon’s Sam took her daughters to Canada to visit her aunt and uncle in a small beach community, it was, in no particular order, a travelogue, a mystery, a tragedy, a ghost story, and a (very) dysfunctional family comedy. Adlon’s direction (working in tandem with director of photography Michael Alden Lloyd) was so gorgeous, I was tempted to watch the whole thing a second time with the sound off, just so I could look at it all again.
It was my favorite episode of the entire series, and one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.
It was also written by Louis CK.
A week ago, I decided it didn’t feel appropriate to write a laudatory review of an episode credited to a man who earlier in the day had been exposed by The New York Times as a serial harasser of women. “White Rock” felt, like a lot of Better Things, very specific to Adlon’s life and worldview, and she had a shared story credit on it, but the script itself was still attributed to CK, and on that day, it felt like there was no way I could contort myself to sing the episode’s praises without it either seeming in terrible taste, or filled with so many qualifiers about separating CK the writer from CK the man as to be unreadable.
I had heard these rumors before — if you cover TV and/or comedy, it was all but impossible to not hear them — but until there were names attached to the accusations, it became too easy for me to brush them aside and hope they weren’t true. I loved too much about CK’s work — particularly the empathetic and honest quality of his writing that seemed wildly at odds with a man who could do what CK would later admit that he did — and didn’t want to believe him capable of this. The rumors didn’t stop me from lavishing praise on Louie or Horace and Pete — both of which deserved it, even if I have no interest in rewatching either for a very long time, if not ever — from moderating a FYC panel discussion with CK and Adlon, or otherwise holding CK up as one of the most gifted and important TV auteurs of our age. (If Louie didn’t directly inspire Girls or Atlanta or Master of None or even the CK-produced One Mississippi, its existence and critical success made shows like that, and many others, more likely to be greenlit in its wake.)
I’m not proud of a lot of that, though my mortification is a pretty small and insignificant piece of collateral damage from what CK did. And over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a bigger and more unfair potential domino effect of these sins: the impact it will have on the perception of Better Things going forward.
FX has severed its relationship with CK on this show, Baskets, One Mississippi and the upcoming (or probably not, since TBS has suspended production) The Cops. But where CK hadn’t written for Baskets since its first episode, and hasn’t really been involved with One Mississippi — which did an episode this year that was, in hindsight, inspired by CK’s misdeeds — on Better Things, every episode of the series was either written by him or co-written by him and Adlon (and, in a couple of season-one cases, a few other female writers). The show is heavily based on Adlon’s own life and family, and its voice is clearly hers and not his: Sam Fox here and the Pamela character on Louie are similarly blunt to the point of cruelty, but Sam is much warmer and more empathetic and complicated overall, and she’s chosen to make her life revolve almost entirely around her kids. Still, even if CK isn’t involved going forward, his role in these first two seasons, and in helping Better Things become as great as we’ve seen it be, can’t just be waved away, or even easily forgotten.
But the show is, ultimately, Adlon’s, and not just because she’s the one on camera and he hasn’t been. She’s also the one behind the camera for every episode this season (though he directed the series pilot), finding ever-more lush and intimate ways to shoot the chaos in and around Sam’s house. She’s the one drawing on the experience of herself and her own daughters, which led to stories like Frankie’s evolving gender identity. CK is the co-creator (and may have to still be listed as such at the start of each episode, depending on various guild rules), but Better Things owes so much to Adlon that it would be doing her, the series, and the current TV landscape in general a disservice to write it off because of his role in things.
All of which is a long but unfortunately necessary preamble to talking about “Graduation,” the beautiful conclusion to this fantastic season of television, coming up just as soon as I rub this onion on my feet…
“He’s not coming, baby.” –Sam
The fragmented, short story approach of Better Things often feels at odds with the intensely serialized model that most Prestige TV follows at the moment. A huge idea like Frankie potentially being trans will be introduced in one episode, and then never overtly discussed again, leaving viewers to parse things on their own based on clothing and pronoun choices. Even a plot that carried over multiple episodes this season like Sam’s relationship with Robin wound up ending largely offscreen. The show’s not about story arcs, but about individual moments — often really only about individual feelings, which is why an episode like “Rising” can conclude with an extended daydream — and expecting a major narrative throughline here is like waiting for your cat to roll over and beg on command.