If you’re wondering what to expect tonally from FX’s new series Better Things — a promising but not-quite-there-yet dramedy starring and co-created by Pamela Adlon with fellow executive producer Louis C.K. — look no further than its title song, John Lennon’s “Mother.” A product of the primal scream therapy Lennon underwent in the wake of the Beatles’ break-up, “Mother” presents itself as an unadorned truth bomb, with Lennon in the role of prosecutor against his missing matriarch: “Mother, you had me / but I never had you / I wanted you / but you didn’t want me.”
Beneath Lennon’s venom is barely disguised hurt and self-doubt — the song is less about his mother’s shortcomings than his own loneliness in the world. (And, of course, Lennon was also an absentee parent, to his son Julian, though that’s conspicuously unmentioned in “Mother.”)
Therein lies the central theme of Better Things: We are all somebody’s children, and some of us have children of our own. But the prevailing mystery of existence — who am I, and what in the hell am I doing here? — doesn’t become any easier to fathom once you grow up.
A talented character actress with a long career in television and film going back to the ’80s, Adlon landed arguably the best role of her career as Louis C.K.’s acerbic friend and occasional romantic partner on Louie. Behind the scenes, Adlon was also a writer and producer for Louie, and her creative chemistry with C.K. has carried over to Better Things, which sometimes feels like a proxy version of C.K.’s presently shuttered FX series.
No matter Adlon’s protestations to the contrary, the Louie-ness of Better Things is undeniable. Like Louie, Better Things is a semi-autobiographical show about a person in the entertainment business who is balancing work with being a single parent. C.K. is a Manhattan-based comic, and Adlon is an L.A.-based actress, but they both are raising strong-willed daughters while managing ambiguous relationships with their exes.
That C.K. either directed or co-wrote the first five episodes of Better Things strengthens the link between Adlon’s show and Louie. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — after all, Adlon played a substantial role on Louie, so she’s allowed to carry over that show’s melancholic, fly-on-the-wall sensibility to Better Things.
Better Things is at its sharpest when it explores territory that’s specific to Adlon — namely, the particulars of being a working mother in an industry that marginalizes actresses over the age of 40. Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, is famous enough to be considered for a new pilot, but ultimately she’s used as leverage so that the network can eventually hire Rachel McAdams. A subplot about Sam considering plastic surgery is treated with a surprising lack of judgement — Better Things tweaks Hollywood’s sexism, but also doesn’t shy away from depicting Sam’s vanity.
At home, Sam is tasked with managing her high-strung daughters, which include teenager Max (Mikey Madison), tween Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and pre-schooler Duke (Olivia Edward). A running joke on Better Things is that Sam’s kids are embarrassed by their mother, and go out of their way to defy, disrespect, and downright yell at her. There’s obviously a lot of truth in this portrayal of the parent-child dynamic, though over the first five episodes, the family scenes gets a little wearying. The children, by and large, are depicted as obnoxious boors, while Sam is the ever-understanding familial rock. While later episodes delve a little deeper into Max’s life, Better Things is much more sympathetic to Sam’s perspective.
Sam-as-mensch is a constant on Better Things. No matter how overwhelmed she is as parent, Sam still pulls it together to dispense sage-like life advice to her daughters at just the right time. Pretty much every episode ends with a warm hug. Sam’s wisdom also extends beyond the family — in two different episodes, she tells off a deluded man for mistreating the woman in his life. Better Things has the formal trappings of an edgy ’10s prestige comedy, but its content isn’t far removed from a ’90s ABC sitcom, like Roseanne with a higher tax bracket.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with that, expect that Better Things clearly wants to be viewed as bolder and more original than it is. Constant comparisons to Louie are unfair, but Better Things would benefit from Louie‘s absurdist streak, which helped steer that show away from just being a straight-forward sitcom about a sensitive dad who tells jokes at night.
Adlon’s singular screen presence guarantees that Better Things will never feel entirely conventional with her in the lead. On Louie, she was a discomforting wildcard, walking the razor edge between humor and bruising truth — you never knew exactly what she was going to do or say, which made her feel real. On Better Things, Adlon too often steps outside of the story to plainly point out to the audience how we should feel about a particular character or storyline. As the series progresses, Better Things occasionally feels repetitive, even hectoring.
Still, there’s enough here to suggest that Better Things will get better should Adlon have the chance to refine what’s already a good but somewhat unformed show. Assuming Louie‘s retirement is permanent, Better Things has an opening to become the go-to program for parents looking to vent once the kids are in bed.
Better Things premieres tonight, September 8, on FX at 10 p.m. ET.