There is a moment in the new season of Better Things that encapsulates Pamela Adlon’s funny, deeply felt, vividly authentic series in just a few seconds.
Adlon plays a working actress named Sam Fox, single mom to three challenging daughters, and last season things got particularly difficult with 14-year-old middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood), who moved out for a while and, at season’s end, did not seem particularly eager to come back.
As season 4 opens, the daughters are returning from a visit with their father, and Frankie’s walkabout is not mentioned. How long was she gone? Why did she come back? We don’t know. The closest we get to a resolution is Frankie telling her mother “I missed you so much.” Did she miss Sam when she moved out? Again, we don’t know.
But once they get back home, and Frankie and Sam have a moment alone, Frankie tells her mom that she wants a big party for her birthday. Sam is thrilled, incredulous; Frankie is generally pretty uptight and guarded with her emotions, not the big birthday party type. Then comes a curveball: Frankie doesn’t just want a 15th birthday party, she wants a Quinceañera. Sam points out that Frankie is “way too Jewish for a Quinceañera” — Sam’s family is in no way Mexican — and Frankie argues that she wants to “acknowledge that California is a Latinx colony.” And then the real kicker: she wants Sam to invite her ex, Frankie’s dad, to the party.
I say that this moment sums up the show because, having watched and thoroughly enjoyed each of the three prior seasons — the first two, which Adlon created in close partnership with Louis C.K., and the third, which Adlon did after C.K. had some, uh, personal issues — I truly don’t know if we will see this Quinceañera, or whether it will happen at all. Maybe Sam talks Frankie out of it; more likely, she goes along with it, because that’s the kind of mom Sam is. Maybe Frankie changes her mind and decides to have the bat mitzvah she skipped at 13, or decides she never wanted a party in the first place, because that’s the kind of kid Frankie is. Or maybe they have the party and the show just doesn’t bother to show it, because that’s the kind of show Better Things is.
I wrote in my review of last season that “Adlon has almost totally jettisoned any conventional notion of plot or dramatic conflict, instead creating episodes that play like a day in the life of midlevel working actress and single parent Sam Fox — no shortage of problems or individualized conflicts, but precious little resolution to any of it, like real life.” That approach paid huge dividends on season 3, and Adlon doubles down on it in season 4, devoting the first few minutes of the premiere to a montage of unpopulated exterior shots a rainy day in Los Angeles. Does the rain figure into the plot of the episode that follows? No: Sam simply remarks that she loves the rain and wishes it would rain all the time. A moment later, Frankie echoes the sentiment. And then it stops raining.
That probably sounds like a particularly boring show, perhaps even a challenge to the very definition of the word “show.” Do we really need to see Sam spend a couple of minutes of screen time cooking dinner after she gets some good news on the phone? Or watching Frankie paint her bedroom wall, with no interruption or commentary from anyone? Probably not. But Better Things is really engaging, thanks to the uncommonly warm chemistry among the performers — Adlon, Alligood, Mikey Madison as college-dropout oldest daughter Max and Olivia Edward as precocious youngest Duke, plus Diedrich Bader as Sam’s pal Rich and Rebecca Metz as her ex-manager Tressa — and its familiar, lived-in vibe. And like real life families, Better Things is rife with inside jokes like the family’s apparent knock-wood custom of spitting on two fingers anytime the topic of Sam’s work comes up, or Sam randomly quoting the song from 2006 ur-meme “Shoes” as she walks the halls of the family house.
As for this season’s themes, Adlon appears to be in roughly the same state of mind she was a year ago, confronting her advancing age and its effects on her career and personal life. When the girls implore Sam to make a dating profile and get out there, she replies that she is a proud “Volcel” — voluntary celibate. When an old friend (Cree Summer) mourns her recently collapsed marriage, Sam offers good, if slightly tough, advice. When Rich mourns his own failed relationship, Duke materializes to dispense shockingly wise words for a girl her age. When Sam learns that the animated series she starred on for 10 years is being rebooted, she goes to reclaim her part, only to learn that she has to audition for it (Mike Judge, whose King of the Hill employed Adlon as the voice of Bobby Hill, makes a very funny cameo here). When the family minivan is stolen from the mechanic’s garage, Sam takes a responsible, grown-up electric vehicle for a test drive, before full surrendering to her midlife crisis.
If you have enjoyed this show before, I have good news: the new season is more of the same, and better than ever. If you haven’t, I can’t recommend it more highly, particularly to Gen-X types cresting the wave from parenting little kids to parenting little adults.
Better Things premieres at 10pm ET Thursday on FX; new episodes will be on demand Fridays.