There’s a thread that directly connects the season two finale of Better Things to the season three premiere. An evolution for Max (Mikey Madison) that started with her high school graduation, her heartbreak at being let down (again) by her father, and the way Sam (Pamela Adlon) laser-focused her on getting through that moment and then charmed her (and the audience) with a beautiful family dance number/graduation gift. But while the finale was, to a certain extent, focused on Max, the premiere is more about Sam transitioning to a new phase in her life after dropping her oldest off at college in Chicago. Which creates an interesting layer on an already interesting show.
The process of settling into new roles within the parent/child dynamic when we become grown and both sides get confused — never really knowing when to offer or ask for help, to push away, to pull back — is an insanely difficult move that invites frustration and resentment. Even when there’s already a seemingly cool foundation of mutual respect (as there is on the show between Sam and Max) it’s hard to not walk away with a kind of irreversible deformity in the relationship. And it can break bad at any point once the music starts to play and everybody tries to find that new chair.
Look at Sam and her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie). There’s so much love there, but also so much emotional constipation, especially with Phil’s slowly fading mental faculties. Sam has to think of her mother as if she’s another child to shadow and care for, a role reversal that Better Things handles so well.
Adlon, the show’s co-creator, showrunner, director, and often writer/co-writer, creates a space for Imrie to portray a woman stubbornly clinging to her independence and place at the top of the parent-child hierarchy (even if it’s becoming obvious that that’s not the case). She also creates a space for her own character, Sam, to observe, respect, and occasionally fight to preserve that independence while taking on an awful weight of worry about if she’s making the right decision. That’s sort of Sam’s MO with everyone under her wing, including Max during these first two seasons of the show — she doesn’t throw herself in front of every mistake, blocking her kids from the pain. She has the foresight to let them get tempered by life’s fire a little bit. But it’ll be interesting to see how that attitude matures for Sam with Max as she takes the wheel in her life and that natural role progression between mother and daughter settles.
Speaking of taking the wheel, it has to be noted that, for reasons obvious and not in need of re-hashing for the umpteenth time, Louis C.K. is no longer a part of the writer’s room on this show. But season three of Better Things isn’t a triumph over a missing piece, it’s a reminder that Adlon was always the main engine of the thing.
It’s not like Better Things is an all new show. If anything, the transition between seasons and away from C.K.’s efforts as a writer feels seamless and the focus organic. Which is to say nothing of Adlon’s evolution as a director. Adlon directed all 10 episodes last season (and two in season one), but her confidence as a visual storyteller is rising, as evidenced by standout sequences like a cut to black and white with interspersed snapshots framing the importance of Sam and Max’s time in Chicago during the season premiere. But even a seemingly forgettable shot like Duke near-skipping through an arcade after getting money from her mom or the crane shot in the parking lot outside that same arcade give a viewer a different look. And that is, obviously, the kind of thing — even above story — that helps to establish the unique art of this show.
In addition to her changing relationship with Max and her concern for Phil, Sam is still barely masking the unique struggle of single parenthood with the occasionally outright mean Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and the sometimes outright odd Duke (Olivia Edward) in Los Angeles. She’s also managing her role at the center of a swelling friend group (still highlighted by Diedrich Bader’s Rich) and fresh career success that is bringing its own challenges. The quest for a relationship isn’t completely off the table, but it’s definitely off to the side as priorities go for Sam and Adlon’s interests when it comes to how she stacks the show’s narrative endeavors. And that’s fine. Life is messy and Better Things keeps it real, meaning love and sex are an often too complicated delight to deal with amidst the chaos.
Aging has never really been ignored as a point of focus on Better Things. The Sam/Phil relationship is obviously part of that, but Max’s move to college does open a door for the show to keep going down that path with Sam, who is somewhat proud to have one of three out of the nest. Still, everything about our inevitable “decay” is not dealt with in a trope-y existential crisis kind of way. As with all things, Sam’s too busy to get bogged down for too long so she sort of navigates the pothole, occasionally joking and laughing at it. It’s a response that’s delightful and even aspirational.
Maybe that’s why I respond so strongly to Better Things. Sam gets stymied or overwhelmed sometimes like anyone else, but more often than not, she endures, shrugs, and sometimes responds to a metaphorical punch in the arm with a kick in the shin or a middle finger. There’s power in all of that and we all know that it’s hard to feel powerful or in control when facing big things and big emotions and big whatever the hell is going on with the world beyond our immediate reach (but never far from our sight). Sometimes we need to feel like we can mount that kind of response and laugh off the storm. Sometimes we need to remember that barely holding on is still holding on. Sam stands out as a reminder of that power and that sometimes loosening grip so she’s the hero we need.
The ‘Better Things’ season three premiere debuts tonight on FX at 10 p.m.