How Pamela Adlon’s ‘Better Things’ Broke Through for FX (Critic’s Notebook)

Comedy that just scored a season 2 renewal is so much more than just “Louie, Part 2”

better things

Although dealing in familiar narrative themes — the stressed-out life of a single mom, the challenges of working in the entertainment industry, the vapidity of Los Angeles — “Better Things” arrives at someplace unique and lovely. Co-created by and starring Pamela Adlon, a veteran actor and longtime creative partner to co-creator Louis C.K., this FX comedy-drama plunges into the specificity of its harried heroine’s day-to-day reality, unearthing touching life lessons that are never trite thanks to the series’ wary tone. The network just gave the show a second-season order, along with Donald Glover‘s hip-hop comedy “Atlanta.”

Comparisons to “Louie” will be inevitable when it comes to “Better Things.” Adlon produced, wrote and appeared on that acclaimed show, earning four Emmy nominations in the process. Plus, Louis C.K. has a hand in the writing early episodes of “Better Things,” even directing the pilot. There’s no question the two performers share a candid, downbeat sensibility, but “Better Things” is far more than just “Louie 2.” Drawing from aspects of her own life, Adlon understands the show’s milieu intimately, and that lived-in quality makes this series feel particularly close to the heart, adding pathos to the somber moments and an extra sting to the jokes.

Adlon plays Sam, who had much success as a young actress but now finds herself as the middle-aged mother to three daughters. Auditioning for roles and trying to stave off Hollywood perceptions that she’s too old to be bankable, Sam has no love life outside of an occasional (and unseen) hookup buddy, her most intense relationship being with her girls. Each daughter is complicated in an un-stereotypical way: Teenage Max (Mikey Madison) likes pushing her independence and sexiness; anxious middle-child Frankie (Hannah Alligood) flaunts her political activism, perhaps in part to counter potential personal problems; while grade-schooler Duke (Olivia Edward) simply adores her mother, giving Sam the fewest headaches.

“Better Things” quickly establishes Sam’s messy life — between work, family and friends, she’s stretched in myriad directions and perpetually exhausted — but Adlon (who also co-writes) fights against the scenario’s inherent sentimentality. Neither perfect angels nor sitcom-generic brats, Sam’s kids demand a lot from her, and as the series rolls along we see how she has to be a different mother to each of them, sometimes finding the right answer and other times flailing badly. Adlon (who herself has three daughters) views each character in Sam’s family — including her outspoken mother (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street — as a woman on her own journey, each trying to negotiate the specific chapter of life in which she finds herself.

Working with modest plots, the typical “Better Things” episode stumbles into a simple truth in an offhand way. In one, Sam brings a director (played by a charming Lenny Kravitz) over to her house for dinner with her family, the story morphing from a commentary on race relations to the perils of falling for a guy who’s kinda-sorta still married. In another, Sam’s concerns about connecting with the prickly Frankie dovetail with a parallel narrative in which she might land a coveted role on a new TV show — except she doesn’t know that, only the audience aware of the show’s possible existence. The latter episode is particularly insightful in showing how our small daily struggles blind us to other developments happening on the periphery that might change our life, entirely outside of our control or knowledge.

Because the show is set in Los Angeles, it’s not surprising that Adlon takes shots at plastic surgery and diva-ish Hollywood stars. (Her “Californication” co-star David Duchovny has a blast playing a checked-out version of himself in one episode.) But those admittedly easy jokes are outnumbered by shrewd observations about the realities of being a working actress. Shuffling between voiceover work — Adlon won an Emmy for “King of the Hill” — and one-off parts on TV shows, Sam has a comfortable life and a nice house, but “Better Things” recognizes that those achievements don’t immunize her from the same insecurities that bedevil other artists — nor does it make her job as a single mom any easier.

Adlon plays Sam with no-nonsense wit, the character constantly oscillating between a nervous breakdown and a sarcastic barb. And the three daughters are all strong, with Madison and Alligood particularly good at suggesting the impossibly temperamental demeanor of young people. “Better Things” isn’t particularly innovative, but that’s apt for characters who are just fighting to keep their head above water. Adlon’s show doesn’t romanticize that struggle or attempt to make it cutesy — which is probably why it will speak to a lot of very tired, overworked people trying to carve out some free time to watch at home.