Saturday, September 17, 2016

Different Perspective: Pamela Adlon's Better Things

Pamela Adlon in Better Things on FX.

Better Things, Pamela Adlon’s new comedy on FX, does an excellent job of summing itself up in its opening scene. Adlon’s character Sam is sitting on a bench, looking at her phone while her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward) stands sobbing next to her. After a little while, Sam looks up and catches the disapproving stare of the elderly woman on the other end of the bench and confronts her, explaining that Duke is crying because Sam won’t buy her a cheap trinket and inviting the older woman to go ahead and buy it for her if she’s so concerned about the little girl. It’s hard not to read that opening scene in terms of star Adlon’s role on Louie, another sort-of comedy on FX in which she frequently appeared as comedian Louis C.K.’s on-again-off-again romantic interest (Louis C.K.’s also heavily involved as a producer on this show, so it seems fair to compare the two programs). In that show, we saw her primarily through the fictionalized Louie’s eyes (both shows feature comedians playing somewhat autobiographical versions of themselves) and at times her character threatened to become a twenty-first century version of the maddening temptress, the woman whom the main character desired but could never really possess. Louie was ultimately much smarter than that, but it’s still refreshing to see Adlon introduce a slightly different version of her character and show us life from her perspective. As the woman on the bench learns, there’s a lot more to Sam than the sardonic, seemingly uncaring front that she presents to the world.

One of the aspects of Better Things that makes it especially notable is its focus on Sam’s role as a single mother to three young girls, ranging in age from grade school to high school. It’s not an especially exotic concept, and yet I have a hard time thinking of recent shows that have featured a similar scenario. We get to see Sam going through her daily life, grinding out voice work in between auditions for parts she’ll never get, but the show’s primarily concerned with how she relates to her three daughters: Duke, the sweet youngest child; Frankie (Hannah Alligood), the middle child; and Max (Mikey Madison), who in a more conventional show would fill the “troubled teenager” role. I have no idea how much of Sam’s parenting is based on Adlon’s personal experience, but I was intrigued by how the pilot (I’ll confess that I haven’t yet had a chance to watch the second episode, which aired this week) walks a line between the goofy parenting hijinks of a Modern Family and the blasé attitude of a show like HBO’s recently-canceled Togetherness. On the one hand, Sam readily admits to her youngest daughter that sleeping with the father of one of her classmates was a mistake, but on the other she recoils when Max asks her to obtain pot for her and her friends. “Ah, no, hide things from me, please!” Sam begs when Max says that she thought her mother would be cool with her daughter being so open and honest.

The pilot is loosely structured, although it’s still more coherent than a typical episode of Louie, which might fit a few unrelated short stories centering around its title character into a single half-hour. Here, everything’s of a piece: the first episode ends with her filming a steamy scene for a TV show with a fellow actor (Bradley Whitford, in one of a number of entertaining cameos) but, rather than being an unrelated tangent on the ups and downs of working in show business, the scene circles back to Sam’s motherhood when she asks the director if they can tone it down so that it won’t embarrass Max when her friends see it (he says no, of course). Other seemingly unconnected scenes, such as one in which Sam and Constance Zimmer (playing herself) walk out of an audition when they find out that sitcom star Julie Bowen (also appearing as herself) has come in to read, nevertheless serve to inform our understanding of Sam when we see her exhausted and frustrated later in the episode.

I fear that my description of Better Things makes it sound like a bummer, one of those downbeat half-hour “dramedies” that seem ubiquitous on outlets like FX. However, it’s actually quite funny: the way that Adlon plays her opening confrontation with the elderly woman, or a scene in which she starts using her cartoon voice during a voiceover session to say nasty things about one of her daughter’s teachers, made me laugh more consistently than many other similar comedies. I’ll be curious to see how the show handles tone going forward. There are some faintly surrealist touches around the edges of the show - it one point, Sam has a flashback involving her father, which director Louis C.K. shoots in unsettling close-up, while she lies asleep with Duke – but it’s not clear if Better Things will have the same sort of stylistic and tonal heterogeneity of Louie.

On a similar note, I’ll be curious to see what Adlon does as an actor. She has some nice moments in the pilot, such as a scene in which she’s texting back and forth with a man with whom she’s involved and it gradually emerges that he may have a wife or at least another girlfriend with him when he’s back in town. At first, Adlon’s face registers a sense of happiness and relief when she hears from him – we’ve just seen her running around attending to her daughters, and you can see her suddenly relax and appear as open and vulnerable as she’s been throughout the episode – but some of the familiar reserve creeps back in as the truth becomes clearer. More moments like this may help to expand the emotional range of Better Things, but even if it never quite makes the leap into the top tier of half-hour shows, it’s still an entertaining and reasonably unique program that’s worth welcoming into their already-crowded ranks.

– Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at@theaterhistory.

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