It will be sadly missed when Pamela Adlon’s sympathetic, inspirational autobiographical dramedy about parenthood is no longer available.
Since becoming a parent, I have given one fictitious mother more thought than any other. Sam Fox, the star of Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical dramedy Better Things (BBC Two), is not your typical matriarch on the surface: a single mother of three (roughly) teenage girls, she leads an exciting, busy life in a stunning Los Angeles home and, like her creator, is a successful actor and director who enjoys a respectable but not obtrusive level of fame. Yet through Sam, Adlon has been able to succinctly express something fundamentally understandable about parenting that is both obvious and frequently overlooked: having children means that your life is no longer your own.
In fiction writing, there is a piece of conventional knowledge that emphasizes the significance of understanding what your protagonist wants. Sam’s own ambitions don’t have much to do with anything in Better Things, which is how Adlon subverts this cliché to suit her audience. As a result of constant pressure from her daughters, her mother (the eccentric, borderline narcissistic Celia Imrie), her brother, friends, and coworkers, she constantly reacts to and anticipates the demands of others. In fact, her choice to take care of herself in the second episode of this season leaves her speechless and inconsolable for hours.
Instead of being a long rant from the overprivileged, Better Things is a fantastic, life-affirming show because Adlon both celebrates and bemoans this situation.
The opening montage of the season perfectly captures this feeling:
Sam’s menial tasks around the house—carrying laundry, feeding fish, and pulling items out of the freezer (almost climbing inside for menopause relief)—are accompanied by Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, a jovial song that promotes the vastness of space as a source of comfort. It’s the kind of random but strangely perfect mashup of music and action that had to be the result of one person’s extremely particular taste; something you don’t see enough of in the highly collaborative world of TV. It’s bittersweet, humorous, and tear-jerkingly gorgeous.
After that gratifyingly indulgent break, however, the show moves at a frantic pace, capturing the borderline anxiety-inducing chaos of Sam’s numerous obligations in a Jenga tower of storylines. Sam’s eldest daughter Max (Mikey Adison), who is looking for an apartment, her youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward), who is staying with her father, her best friend going through a relationship crisis, dinner with her middle child Frankie’s (Hannah Alligood) friend and his mother, who becomes a druid, and Max’s (Mikey Adison’s) apartment search are just a few of the storylines in the first.
This fast-paced switching between characters, dialogues, and locales is a storytelling technique that exudes creative assurance and transforms the show’s complex, nuanced emotional spectrum into engrossing entertainment. Sam is well-known for her role in the animated series “Ching of the Mill,” while Adlon is best known for lending his voice to a character in King of the Hill. They are both single parents of three daughters who are roughly the same age. It also feels like a representation of how life feels: the realism enhanced by the fact that the show’s world resembles Adlon’s real one, frequently shrouded in only a thin veil of fiction. The program also demands this sincerity; else, Adlon’s intimate depiction of the rewards and challenges of parenthood would seem a little off.
Better Things’ core values are those delights and brutalities, although they largely come through in minute details. In the first episode, Max promises to update her largely absent father on the “family conversation.” Family conversation? Family chats! Sam replies with cynical understatement, but you feel the gut impact. In reality, you can feel every bit of her suffering—the insults from her kids’ blunt knives, their never-ending hectoring, the never-ending domestic tasks. None of this is intended to make you feel particularly bad for her, though. Sam is not a victimized or sorrowful character; rather, she is a confident, accomplished, and incredibly competent lady who can operate a generator. She is also generally happy because, as Better Things demonstrates, spending time with her kids and experiencing their priceless, fleeting acts of love and affection make everything worthwhile.
There will be storylines involving abortion, pronouns, and a family trip to England before Better Things takes its final bow. There will be disagreements and battles. Secrets and anguish will exist. There will be joy and laughter. And when it’s all said and done, there will be a void in the TV comedy landscape where this ambitious, sympathetic, solace-seeking, inspirational, and singularly personal show once stood.