Sam Fox has a lot of things to carry. The single mother of three, played by Pamela Adlon in the new semi-autobiographical FX show Better Things, is seen dragging enormous trash bins, struggling with a cooler half her size on the sidelines of a soccer game, and, in another scene, carrying a chair around her house in an attempt to locate and disable a blaring smoke alarm.
In one of the best moments I've seen on television, Sam is stopped repeatedly by her mother, who lives across the street, as she lugs a large suitcase up her driveway. Sam has just returned from filming in Canada and is exhausted. Frustrated, she sends her mother away before going inside her own home, which she discovers is completely trashed. Her oldest daughter, Max, has thrown a party while she was away and the two younger daughters, Frankie and Duke, have done their own damage to the kitchen.
Desperate for a nap, Sam instead puts her mother on speakerphone and begins to clean. In this quiet moment, the show announces just what it has to offer: an incredibly subtle, layered, and nuanced approach to depicting familial love. In the cleaning montage that follows, Sam's face, movements, and terse but tender remarks to her mother form a tableau depicting just how many emotions—hurt, obligation, resentment, frustration—can be contained within love.
"This is the way my family engages," Adlon recently told VICE from her home in Los Angeles. "It is sometimes difficult for me to be around my mom, and sometimes it is difficult for my daughters to be around me. There could be a huge tsunami of emotion, and then we could be like, 'Let's just all go to dinner.' That's the way life is. Big fucking gnarly things happen, and then you just move on. When you love people, you love them, and you're allowed to make mistakes."
Better Things is, in part, a result of a long-held artistic partnership between Adlon and comedian Louis CK, who is credited as a writer, director, and co-creator of the series. They first starred together a decade ago as husband and wife on HBO's Lucky Louie and have remained involved creatively ever since. Perhaps because of this, it will be tempting for people to draw comparisons between Better Things and CK's own FX show Louie, for which Adlon also writes, produces, and holds a recurrent role as Pamela, Louie's friend and sometimes love interest. Unfortunately, too many of these comparisons will serve to reduce both shows by dubbing Better Things a West Coast Louie for ladies. A more apt resemblance is found in the subtle and restrained ethos behind the writing and acting both shows prefer.
"I really want to keep things authentic and real-feeling," Adlon explained. "And so the way I write and the way Louis writes and when we write together—it's really anathema to us to over-explain. Every time I'd get a new actor on my show—I respect actors so much—I'd say, 'Keep it simple and don't worry. Let real moments happen. Let pauses lay there, and don't look for what's not there. It's all there on the page.'"
Like Louie, Better Things excels at letting a moment or single line of dialogue speak both to the scene and simultaneously to a larger, often political context. "I think about things on a bigger scale all the time in my life," said Adlon. "I'm fully engaged in my life in the present, but I really look at everything observationally, and that's what I hope is portrayed."
In one scene, Sam is accused by her daughter Max of only working to become famous, the implication being that fame is more important to Sam than her time spent with her children. Sam says, simply, "This is so unfair that I think I'm going to pass out." In the briefest of pauses before and after Adlon says her line, it is impossible not to feel how deeply such a sense of unfairness is felt. "When I watch that scene down in editing, I am struck every time," said Adlon. "I'm not making this a soapbox for single moms and feminism. I didn't set out to make a feminist show, but I think it very much is. It is a human show. I feel that scene can be relatable to so many people. It doesn't have to be just about a mother and a daughter—it's about the exchange of these hard truths and processing them."
The hard truths uttered are not limited to what is happening between the two characters on the screen. We know it is unlikely that similar accusations are being hurled at Max's absent father, and we are reminded that when it comes to parenting, the pressures and expectations are not placed on genders equally. "I really want to talk about gender and aging and racism," Adlon acknowledged. "But then just talk about regular, boring life. It's a show about a bunch of people. It's the layers of real, everyday life."
What should not be left unsaid is that this scene and the show as a whole is very funny. But the humor does more than entertain—it forms the philosophical core. In Adlon's hands, these moments—single interactions, even single sentences uttered in an argument—have the ability to compress a range of emotions and ideas relevant to both the personal and political self. Her masterful portrayal of these moments forces them to expand and display just how much complexity is contained within our mundane, everyday lives. It's a heavy task, but Adlon, like her character, bears it well.
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Better Things premieres Thursday, September 8 on FX.