‘Better Things’ Review: Pamela Adlon Delivers One of Fall’s Best TV Shows

FX comedy-drama looks at single motherhood, in all its many frustrations (and occasional joys)

better things

Welcome to single motherhood, where the kids reign supreme, work is anything but fulfilling and there’s plenty of judgment from everyone else. At least that’s single motherhood according to Pamela Adlon in her new FX series “Better Things,” which is one of the best new series to hit the airwaves this fall season.

The dark comedy, which she co-created with Louis C.K., features Adlon as Sam–the mamma bear to three girls with varying personalities. There’s Max (Mikey Madison), the eldest, who in the pilot begs her mom to get her “safe pot” and is in full typical teenage angst mode. Middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is a wannabe activist who speaks about cutting off her clitoris in a political protest. Then there’s Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest of the family, who is just a little more mature than she lets on to her mother.

It all adds up to a functional dysfunctional family at its best, with just a little too much estrogen in the house for a day to go by without some yelling, foot-stomping and eye-rolling. At the center of it all is Sam, who takes random acting jobs in order to put food on the table and dreams of a life in which sex just so happens to be on the agenda.

The documentary-shot style (similar to C.K.’s “Louie”), would be downright depressing if it weren’t for those little moments in between that make being a mom worthwhile. Duke’s little “baby hands” touching her mom and falling asleep with her in bed, for example. Or the family bonding together over a bad breakup and foregoing trick-or-treating on Halloween in a future installment. These pieces create a snapshot in which you see how a mom would do anything for her children, even when it means sacrificing her own needs in the process.

Of course there are plenty of adult scenes to go around as well, such as Sam’s talk with a producer about how she’s uncomfortable with the level of nudity in a scene with her co-star (played by Bradley Whitford). Or the absurdity of auditioning against someone like Julie Bowen, who clearly has the part in the bag (both Sam and fellow actress Constance Zimmer walk out without even trying). And the scene in which Sam is doing a cartoon voiceover but loses her shit because she’s received a belittling call from her daughter’s school about forgetting the homework in the car. Again.

It’s easy to see some of the perceived parallels between Adlon’s real life and the series. After all, Adlon did perform some pretty raunchy scenes on “Californication” with screen partner Evan Handler, and she has voiced plenty of characters on over-the-top series like “King of the Hill” and “Bob’s Burgers.” But it’s as though this is a heightened, comical version of those experiences; one that Adlon looks at through a comedic lens and shrugs, “Hey, this is reality. My reality, and I might as well laugh about it.”

It’s that self-examination and openness (not to mention a perfectly matched soundtrack) that makes the series so addictive. You’re not quite sure if you’re on board at the outset because it smacks you in the face and leaves you feeling like you need a gallon of wine on Sam’s behalf. But once you get over the shock you can’t help but wonder what’s coming at this single mom next, and when they do, how she’ll decipher the humor in those little trying moments.

“Better Things” premieres Sept. 8 on FX.