Better Things: The show that makes every other comedy look tired and formulaic

Now fully unhitched from co-creator Louis CK, the fourth series of Pamela Adlon’s Hollywood single parent drama is an event for its fans in the UK, but it should be much more famous than it is, says Gerard Gilbert

Sunday 06 September 2020 10:57 BST
Murray (Caleb Mantuano), Sam (Pamela Adlon) and Duke (Olivia Edward) in the fourth series of ‘Better Things’
Murray (Caleb Mantuano), Sam (Pamela Adlon) and Duke (Olivia Edward) in the fourth series of ‘Better Things’ (BBC/FX)

As invidious as it may be to rank TV shows as different as Fleabag, Normal People and I May Destroy You, that’s exactly what the website Metacritic does; it amalgamates professional television critics’ reviews from Britain and America and marks shows out of 100. While Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sally Rooney and Michaela Coel’s recent offerings all scored highly on this metric, they were topped by another show altogether. Its latest season arrives unceremoniously on BBC Two this evening (6 September). It’s called Better Things and there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of it.

This American dramedy follows jobbing LA actress and single mother called (somewhat jarringly to British ears) Sam Fox. Sam (played by the show’s writer and director, Pamela Adlon) has three daughters ranging in age from prepubescent to college-bound. Unlike most young people on TV, the girls don’t feel like cute vessels for adult scriptwriters but come across like the real thing – depicted with a naturalism and empathy shared with all the characters. This includes Celia Imrie as Sam’s infuriating, amusingly frank, but increasingly infirm mother, and Sam herself, a battle-scarred realist but crucially not a cynic.

With its discreetly showbiz LA backdrop and catalogue of everyday indignities, you could see it as a bigger-hearted, perimenopausal sister to Curb Your Enthusiasm, although it’s another Larry David-created comedy, Seinfeld, famously a “show about nothing” (while being about everything), that’s deep in its DNA. Each episode is a montage of different, seemingly ephemeral sequences rather than a linear story, a “tone-poem” as one critic put it.

There is little in the way of action – unless you count taking the car in for repair or attending a school parents’ evening – just a series of relatable snapshots of everyday life relayed with such honesty and humour that they make most other TV drama and comedy seem tired and formulaic.

Season four begins with a tracking shot that encapsulates the direction’s low-key experimentalism, the camera roaming the upstairs of Sam’s house, going into empty bedrooms and pausing over the personal effects like a burglar, or a ghost, before finally alighting on a sleeping Sam, her bum sticking out from the discarded sheets. Adlon is uninhibited physically as well psychically, which brings me to one reason why Better Things probably received so little fanfare in this country. And it wasn’t Adlon exposing herself for her art that possibly caused this reticence, but her Better Things co-creator Louis CK doing so in front of non-consenting women. By the time the show was picked up by the BBC, three years after airing in the States and post-scandal, the association with Louis CK must have provided a knotty dilemma for those critics who might otherwise have welcomed its affirmative female sensibility.

Madonna Magee and Celia Imrie in ‘Better Things’
Madonna Magee and Celia Imrie in ‘Better Things’ (BBC)

Adlon has cut all ties with Louis CK and now writes and directs the show herself. There is a generosity and warmth here compared to the equally unflinching but far more nihilistic Louie, in which Adlon also played a single parent. And for fathers of teenage daughters, like myself, the show can also be wonderfully cathartic and wise – so when mine asks to smoke marijuana or buy a pet chinchilla, I’ll have a better idea of how to handle the request.

But fathers are largely absent in Better Things. It’s all about the cross-generational sisterhood, while for anyone looking to broaden their Spotify playlist, there’s the bonus of an eclectic alt-rock and rare-groove soundtrack. The opening theme song is, however, a classic and entirely apposite given the subject matter: “Mother” by John Lennon. Binge on Better Things and the opening chords will become your latest earworm.

Better Things airs tonight (Sunday) at 10pm on BBC Two

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