“Sam copes with stuff”; “Sam preps;” “Sam sees old friends and cooks for everyone” — these are some of the descriptions for the new episodes of Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s rich, almost painfully real family dramedy. Just as Seinfeld was a show “about nothing” that was really about everything, Better Things remains television’s most rewarding and perfectly rendered depiction of the myriad tiny struggles intrinsic to getting through a day on this earth.
Season 3 finds single mom Sam (Adlon) essentially where we left her in 2017, raising a trio of infuriating, wonderful daughters — college-bound Max (Mikey Madison), moody middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and anxious elementary schooler Duke (Olivia Edward) — while making a living as a working actress. (This is the first season since co-creator/executive producer Louis C.K. was fired by FX, and the show does not suffer for his absence.) Sam resides in the long, unforgiving stretch of mid-middle age, when the kids are still in the house and the grandparents — in this case her brusque, mentally fading mom, Phil (Celia Imrie) — now need parenting themselves. Her days are an endless loop of cooking, driving, working, refereeing, and suffering — through the hell of socializing with other parents during Science Day at Duke’s school, the indignity of entering perimenopause (“You’re coming into your gland finale,” her gynecologist jokes), and the near-constant wave of disdain from her children (“You like the part where I drive you and I pay for the things,” she notes wryly).
But the beauty of Better Things has never been about the what of Sam’s life, but the how she gets through it: A fight with Frankie about homework settles into a quiet compromise, as Sam and her daughter take turns reading the first act of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun aloud, one paragraph at a time. After enduring her first colonoscopy — and the grueling, all-night prep session it required — Sam treats herself… to a new, un-cloggable toilet. (“Are those golf balls?” she squeals gleefully, watching a demo video of the super-flush in action.)
More than anything, Better Things captures the inevitable, irrational feeling most women have that it is always our responsibility — whether at work, at home, or out in the world — to solve the problem at hand. Sam’s latest gig, a big-budget movie called Monsters in the Moonlight, is plagued by lax safety conditions and a self-important director (Love Actually’s Kris Marshall). After a stunt goes awry, she is the only one willing to speak up. “This is a job, and people aren’t being taken care of,” Sam complains. Adlon, who has been acting since age 9, brings a deep, clear-eyed love to her portrayal of the industry, both in the storytelling and the casting (episode 3 features appearances by veteran TV character actors Bernie Kopell, Mary Jo Catlett, Nicolas Coster, and Glynn Turman).
Everything about Better Things feels personal, and yet somehow vastly relatable to anyone who has ever loved a child, agonized over a difficult parent, endured an unsatisfying job, or wondered whether pushing their own personal rock up the hill yet again was really worth it. Maybe that all sounds too heavy, and if so, I apologize — because Better Things, at its best, makes the labor we call life feel a lot more like love. Grade: A