By Lacey Vorrasi-Banis
April 30, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Suzanne Tenner/FX

Better Things

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  • TV Show
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When you visit an aquarium and marvel at the bright, flitting fish behind the glass, it’s clearly a simulation designed to make you feel like you’re underwater with the vibrant sea life. But, no one could argue that it’s certainly not the same as donning flippers and a mask and plunging into the water yourself. That’s the real experience.

This is what season 4 of FX’s Better Things has been like: an experience, as opposed to a simulation. To be fair, there aren’t many shows like it — period. It’s not a sitcom, it’s not a drama, and it seems cheap and easy to call it a dramedy. It is undefinable because, frankly, it’s life. Every episode we’re invited into the home of Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon), an actress and single mom raising three daughters. But unlike the aquarium, for this series and this season in particular, it feels like we’re actually in Sam’s kitchen, also excitedly waiting for middle child, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), to finish crushing peppermints to mix into Breyers because Sam accidentally got high on her legal supply. Or, as in another incredible episode, we aren’t just watching Sam visit New Orleans, we’re right next to her, imbibing the sensory overload the city so richly and effortlessly offers.

Suzanne Tenner/FX

The acting has always seemed like anything but for its entire run. The cast of characters, both regular and less so, are written so fully and portrayed so lucidly you would swear that Phil (Celia Imrie) was your own aging mother, saying wildly inappropriate things at exactly the wrong — sometimes right — moment or that Rich (Diedrich Bader) was your best friend bloodletting his heartache in your bed. This season especially the actors have had an even deeper body of water to plunge into, with standout installments like “Father’s Day” (pictured above), gifting the episode’s ensemble the bittersweet realities of fractured marriages and single motherhood to bring to life, and the penultimate episode of the season, “Batceañera” (pictured below), which served up brutally honest friendship and long-awaited comeuppance with a side of carnitas and knishes. It’s been impressive to watch each of the actors rounding out and progressing these characters a little at a time in both significant and nuanced ways: a knowing glance here, an invitation to Christmas there, wordless conversations here, a soul salve rendition of “Jolene” there. Often with this cast, what’s not said is just as important as what is. There isn’t an actor who doesn’t make the absolute most of their screen time, a fact that Rebecca Metz (who plays Sam’s ex-manager and still-friend Tressa) has owed to creator Adlon’s vision and commitment as both a director and a showrunner.

Suzanne Tenner/FX

For those worried that it’s too late to jump in, such is the wonder of the show. The series has never given anything away all at once. It doesn’t set us up, and, hell, sometimes it never even bothers to give us any context. And yet, isn’t that how life unfolds? It waits for no one and most of the time we’re all just in a rush to catch up, to hop on, to hold on and not let go. For better or worse, people pop in and out of our lives, sometimes setting off ripple effects we won’t see for seasons, if ever. Adlon is brilliant at capturing and unfurling human existence, managing to find the lyrics to the nameless songs of our everyday, the beauty in the mundane, and letting light peek through the cracks of our darker moments.

Especially now more than ever, when we can’t go to an aquarium and when perhaps we are bone-tired of our own realities, it’s refreshing to be able to dive into something real, an experience that will undoubtedly stay with us for the rest of our lives.

The season 4 finale of Better Things airs tonight at 10 p.m. ET on FX.

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Better Things

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