“You are so mean,” a man tells Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) in an upcoming episode of FX’s Better Things. It’s not hard to understand why he would tell her this: Sam has spent their entire date together casually slicing him up with a thousand verbal paper cuts, like referring to sex with him as something she’d rather just get out of the way before they go out to eat, or insisting, “We’re not together” when he suggests she join him for a trip.
But is Sam mean, or is she just direct? Again and again throughout the second season (it debuts Thursday at 10; I’ve seen the first seven episodes), other characters — interested men in particular — are startled by how quick and forceful Sam is with her opinion. “Oh, we go to the point!” one marvels when she briskly lays out the many reasons it would be an awful idea for them to hook up.
“Yes, let’s do that, shall we?” Sam replies, eager to be done with this loser already.
As the single mother of three daughters(*), as an actress who’s been working since she was a kid, and as an adult in 21st century America, Sam doesn’t have time to couch her opinions, or carefully tiptoe up to them, lest she risk offending. She has to go to the point as soon as possible, especially with the many fools she’s too busy to suffer, so she can get back to caring for her girls, or putting in a long day on a set, or just making sure the toilet’s not clogged.
(*) The first season ended with a great episode suggesting middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood) might be trans. Though Frankie’s wardrobe gets a bit more overtly male, the new episodes I’ve seen otherwise don’t follow up on it, and Frankie is still referred to as Sam’s daughter. At the Television Critics Association press tour last month, Adlon — who has spent much of her career since she was a child actor blurring gender lines (including a long stint as Bobby Hill on King of the Hill) — said, “I went through a phase like that in my life, and one of my daughters did as well. And I don’t know what the outcome is going to be” for Frankie, but they aren’t putting a label on it just yet.
But if Sam goes to the point, Better Things — created by Adlon and Louis C.K., with the two sharing writing duties and Adlon directing every episode this season — takes its time more than ever with these new episodes, and is even better for it. It’s a show that understands the power of lingering in a moment, whether to make a joke ring out more sharply, to make a sad development hit harder, or to simply enhance the feeling that you’re spying on this loud family of women with masculine names — Sam, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie, Duke (Olivia Edward), and Sam’s mom Phil (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street — and that Sam might start barking at you if she noticed you sitting there. You don’t so much watch the episodes as you experience them, one small and fully rendered scene at a time, until you come to understand Sam’s point of view and why, even if she may seem mean, it’s probably for the best.
Thanks to the presence of C.K. and Adlon, this was already the most literal of the many Louie spiritual descendants on TV at the moment (see also Atlanta, Master of None, One Mississippi, Lady Dynamite, Insecure…). Louie took a creative jump in its second season by becoming more unpredictable in content and tone. Every year, it seemed to get bigger, until Louie could be traveling to China or auditioning to replace Letterman. Better Things makes its own leap by getting smaller, more intimate, and more focused. You never know exactly what might happen when you turn on the next episode, but you know it’ll primarily be about the challenges of being a mother — even the romance stories tend to become about how Sam would rather be with the girls than this new guy — and that the tone will be relaxed and mostly sweet in a way that belies how the women of the Fox family talk to one another and the world at large(*).
(*) A harried Sam asks Frankie where her sister is. Frankie asks which one. “The shitty one!” Sam blurts out, and while she is probably referring to Max, there’s always a chance to young Duke has taken a bad turn. Frankie clearly knows which.
The new season deftly juggles Sam’s various roles. Sometimes it uses Phil as comic relief, other times as a cautionary tale of what Sam’s relationship with Max and the others will be like on day. And it turns an arc about Sam’s romance with a fellow single parent (played by Henry Thomas, who like Adlon was a child actor in the ’80s) into a referendum on the challenges of bringing a new person into a life that’s already full and challenging.
“I feel like I’m being murdered every day in a vague way that no one could be prosecuted for,” Sam tells him, and by then, you understand exactly what she means.
The first season is streaming on Hulu. The plot agnostic nature of the show — which is like an anthology where all of the characters are the same from week to week (though season two is slightly more serialized) — means you probably could jump in on Thursday night and follow it. But it’s worth spending as much time with this family as you can, even as they drive each other crazy and say exactly how they feel, all the time.
Probably the biggest contrast between Louie and Better Things is the intense empathy it has for Sam, so that the same bluntness that could play as cruel directed from Pamela to Louie feels like something more complicated and almost perversely kind here. Then again, sometimes Sam’s just awful. And that’s okay!
This was a great show in that first year. It’s even greater now.