Hollywood loves to tell stories about itself. Lately, though, television has been telling one story over and over: the navel-gazing, meta-ish, personality-driven Comedy About Comedians.
Driven by the twin forces of Peak TV and the current comedy boom, in which podcasts and social media have exploded in both demand and supply, the Comedy About Comedians is everywhere. Though Garry Shandling invented the form and Jerry Seinfeld perfected it, the true patient zero of the current outbreak is Louis C.K. His Louie established a format (half-hour, equal parts lyrical and autobiographical, heavy on cringe and soul-crushing ennui), and more importantly, an entire business model that rendered said format cheap and easy to replicate: creative control in exchange for minimal budget.
The exact and highly favorable terms of C.K.’s deal with FX, which includes writing and directing every episode and taking hiatuses for other projects at his leisure, haven’t been widely replicated. But premium cable dramedies about how funny people are often — TWIST! — sad have spread like wildfire. In the past few years, Maron, The Sarah Silverman Program, Dice, Broad City, BoJack Horseman, and Baskets have hit the air. Just this summer, we’ve gotten Maria Bamford’s Lady Dynamite and Cameron Esposito’s Take My Wife; just this week, we’re getting the premieres of Nicole Byer’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, and now, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, which debuts tonight and continues FX’s banner run.
These shows have plenty to say. The real problem is that their obvious similarities — the ones that make “It’s a show about X’s struggles in life, love, and the entertainment industry” the least helpful synopsis in history — threaten to overshadow their distinct identities. Underneath shared motifs like the indignities of show business, Comedies About Comedians are often about something else entirely: Take My Wife is ultimately a show about long-term intimacy, landing it closer in spirit to Catastrophe or You’re the Worst than Seinfeld; One Mississippi may pull material from Notaro’s stand-up, a telltale technique of the comedian-as-auteur, but it’s in the service of a deft and poignant exploration of grief. At their best, each of these these shows’ personal slants broaden their appeal rather than narrow it. They’re vehicles for a specific point of view, with a basis in real life that allows creators to channel the truth of their own experiences with ease.
And though Better Things stars co-creator Adlon as a successful, albeit sub-superstar actress, it’s more about single parenthood than her own career. (Unlike other shows that have followed in Louie’s footsteps, the parallels between the two aren’t coincidental: C.K. co-created the show with Adlon as part of his development deal with FX, wrote or cowrote all five of the episodes offered to critics in advance, and directed the pilot.) Better Things gives Adlon a Louie-like platform, but uses it to throw a similar character into a radically different context.
Sam Fox, Adlon’s new alter ego, has plenty in common with Louie’s “Pamela,” as well as Adlon herself. The character’s unvarnished, unfiltered vibe has survived the transplant intact, but here she’s a single mother to three girls in Los Angeles. Like Adlon, whose most widely recognized pre-Louie role was arguably Bobby on King of the Hill, Sam specializes in voice work. And like Adlon, Sam is half-British. In a claustrophobic sitcom touch executed with admirable realism, her expat mother lives right across the street, ideally situated for drop-ins.
Over the course of its first season, though, Better Things reveals itself as the story of a family unit rather than just its head. (A sweet opening credits sequence combines home videos with the Foxes marching around L.A. as a troupe. Think Transparent, not a solo walk to the Comedy Store.) The kids of Better Things are afforded their own personalities, the better to mesh and clash with one another, and with Sam: Duke (Olivia Edward), the baby; Frankie (Hannah Alligood), the tomboy; and Max (Mikey Madison), the teenager. Together, they represent something far more common in day-to-day life than on television: A non-nuclear family, one where everyone’s roles — though especially Sam’s — shift and expand to fill the space conventionally occupied by a second parent.
And yet Sam would rather die by PTA firing squad than utter the phrase “having it all” on screen. She may spend her days navigating a torrent of bullshit spanning temper tantrums, soccer practice, and illicit teen partying, but she doesn’t take it in stride. She snaps, and takes shortcuts, and in the show’s very first scene, basically tells a stranger to fuck off for judging her while coolly ignoring her youngest’s public meltdown. Heavy is the head that wears seven hats at once.
On Better Things, Sam is something rare: a fully realized person, with a family separate from her career and a love life separate from both. It’s dimensionality and status, rarely afforded to middle-aged women, let alone middle-aged women this unapologetically frank, flawed, sexual, or acerbic. And it lends genuine heft to Better Things’ semi-teachable moments, demonstrations of mother-daughter love both casual and profound. We’ve seen this family frayed at the seams — “frayed at the seams” is more or less its default state — so we respond to its fleeting moments of unity.
The Comedy About Comedians may be overextended. The vast majority of viewers, after all, don’t see much of themselves in neglectful agents and industry frenmities. But series like Better Things keep showing the vein isn’t tapped just yet. At their best, performers like C.K. and Adlon use their own lives as starting points, working backwards into more universal truths about aging, alienation, and parenthood. That their own lives taught them how to do it while being funny? That helps, too.