Better Things: “Sam/Pilot” Series Premiere Review

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“I want it to feel real,” Sam (Pamela Adlon) says toward the end of Better Things‘ extraordinary pilot. She’s talking about porn to her makeup artist, but it feels like Adlon herself talking about her show. Coming off of Louie, Pamela Adlon’s own series has definitely borrowed some elements from Louis CK’s, with the man himself even directing the premiere with many of the same stylish flourishes that made Louie a wonder. It shares that hyper-reality, showing Sam doing the most monotonous things with her three daughters, but even delves into a bit of Louie‘s surrealism with an uncomfortable yet revealing dream sequence.

But worry not, Better Things isn’t just a Louie clone. There’s a more obvious sweetness to the pilot. Unlike Louie’s occasionally questionable parenting abilities, Sam keeps things together pretty well. As a single mother with three kids at very different stages of growing up, you’d expect her to be a wreck. And in her opinion, she may be, but the premiere takes time to show us Sam opening herself to love each of her three children in unique ways that match both their varying personalities and Sam herself. This is Adlon achieving that “real feeling” she was talking about with her makeup artist. As a modern parent, she’s dealing with her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), who asks her mom to get her a prescription for pot; a middle child, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), who asks to make a political statement by having her clitoris removed; and the youngest and sweetest, Duke (Olivia Edward), who falls asleep to a lullaby on her mother’s smartphone. Better Things is far from the first show to recognize how the zeitgeist has changed normal family life (Modern Family‘s Julie Bowen even gets a cameo), but it does so with pure, honest writing on a network where you can say “clitoris.” Thankfully, as they did with Louie, FX looks to have given Adlon a lot of creative control, allowing Better Things to be as real as it wants to be.

Luckily, real also means uproariously funny in this case. Take just the opening scene, where we see Duke crying standing next to a sitting, texting Sam. A woman on the other side of the bench is staring until Sam matter-of-factly explains the situation. Duke wants $6.00 earrings she already has at home but wants to wear them right now and, thus, get another pair. Sam refuses, essentially tells her onlooker to “f*ck off,” and finally asks her daughter if she wants a hot dog on a stick. Right then and there, we get a scene that displays Adlon’s genius comedic timing, Louis C.K.’s effortless direction, the show’s overall sense of reality, and the tender sweetness that makes it fresh. The fact that there’s more show on top of this brilliant minute of television is a gift.

But the show has more than just the parenting angle, as Sam is also a middle-aged actress trying to get roles in Hollywood. We see her trying out for a commercial, doing voice work for a cartoon, and filming a scene for a crappy, potentially sexist comedy. If Better Things has an unoriginal bone in its body, it’s here. There are a already a lot of shows about show business, and so far this one hasn’t added anything to the commentary that’s really new. But that’s where it’s important to remember that this is in fact just a pilot.

Then, right before the credits roll, Adlon throws up a dedication to her daughters. It’s the rare dedication from an artist that actually makes us feel something, mostly because we just witnessed her express so much love to them in just this half hour. The normalcy of Better Things allows a moment that could have played sappily to inflate your heart. For that, I have nothing but excitement for what the future of this series holds. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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