Better Things: “Scary Fun” Season 1 Episode 8 Review

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Know what I miss most about the great network comedies from before the golden age of television? Holiday specials. As TV got better, more concentrated, it lost some of its immediacy. Sure, Veep had episodes surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, but they aired in May and June. Well, this lost tradition received a welcome return with Better Things‘ “Scary Fun,” an adorable Halloween-themed episode that brought the family together for some scares and such.

The typical family drama was afoot, however. Frankie is starting to struggle with being the middle child, the one old enough to not need a babysitter but too young to be seen by her mother as a growing adult. Much of “Scary Fun” ends up being centered around a game Sam and Frankie are playing in which they scare each other around the house. But as with most episodes of Better Things, there are also a number of seemingly scatterbrained elements that come together later to form a cohesive whole.

For example, we see Sam rudely brush off her mother several times in the first half of the episode, to the point where Duke even says something. Then, Sam and Frankie deliver Phyllis’ packages to find her lying on the ground. It wouldn’t be that shocking if Better Things killed off this character, forcing Sam to deal with some serious emotions beyond stress from work and love for her kids. In fact, it sure feels like the season is building to that. But it was pretty hilarious when Phyllis screamed for joy on the ground, getting up chipper as ever and putting her arm around Frankie for a scare scheme perfectly pulled off. As cruel as they were, Sam deserved those few seconds of horror. We see in her expression that she knows it too.

But the big emotional release of “Scary Fun” comes in the final moments as the family is getting ready to go out trick or treating. Max is found crying in her room, in an angel costume no less, because her boyfriend broke up with her. Sam does her best to comfort her, but it ends up being Frankie and Duke who complete the job, voting to stay in and watch scary movies instead of going out and getting candy. In one of the cheesiest moments of the season, Sam and her three daughters get into a pillow fight on Max’s bed. It’s the kind of moment that solidifies Better Things as little more than Modern Family with non-linear writing and more profanity. But, in its heyday, Modern Family was a pretty great comedy. If this show can bring more realism to its concept, then it should go for it. So far, this marriage between network comedy tropes and more ambitious, artful storytelling is working. It doesn’t make for the most original TV, but some themes are universally affecting. In this case, some heavy cheese was warranted. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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