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‘Better Things’ Has Changed (in More Ways Than One)

Pamela Adlon’s FX series has necessarily adjusted its production staff—and found some new and effective modes of storytelling

FX/Ringer

A few things are different about Better Things. In its third season, Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical dramedy about middle-aged single motherhood is distinctly more serialized than it’s been in the past; to the dreamy, sketch-like vignettes and bouts of magical realism that defined its earlier seasons, the show adds some substantive plots that bring it closer to a conventionally structured TV series. Adlon’s heroine, Sam Fox, takes an acting job on a big-budget blockbuster shot in the California desert. Her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), leaves the nest and starts the uneasy path to adulthood. Her mother, Phyl (Celia Imrie), finally reckons with the impact of her aging, both on herself and others.

Such tweaks have one obvious source: the addition of outside talent to what had previously been a two-person effort. Better Things had initially foregone a writers’ room, that staple of television’s collective-minded creative process, entirely; now, its roster includes Sarah Gubbins, co-creator of I Love Dick, as well as alumni of Bones and The Last Ship. Adlon still stars in and directs every single episode, an effort so exhausting she schedules daily isolation time on set. “I don’t fall asleep,” her onscreen alter ego observes at one point. “I pass out.” Like the Fox family unit, Better Things may be maturing, but the bulk of the effort falls squarely on its matriarch.

Here is where a reviewer must acknowledge what Adlon herself would like to move past. Understandable as it would have been for Adlon to delegate writing duties for efficiency’s sake, Better Things’ staffing changes were prompted by something both more urgent and less savory. Adlon co-created the show with Louis C.K., the comedian and longtime collaborator with whom she co-starred on both Lucky Louie, C.K.’s ill-fated HBO sitcom, and Louie, his staggeringly influential FX series. Louie’s effect on other shows was mostly a matter of precedent, creating a model of auteur-driven, extremely meta, relatively low-budget vehicles for other creators to follow. On Better Things, its presence—and C.K.’s—was much more immediate. Throughout the first two seasons, C.K. had sole or shared script credit on every single episode.

The 2017 revelation that C.K. had previously exposed himself to female performers and colleagues without their consent, a long-circulating rumor reported out by The New York Times and subsequently confirmed by C.K. himself, arrived in the middle of Better Things’ second season. The story posed questions both urgent and existential for the future of the show. FX swiftly terminated its overall deal with the performer, but what of the show he currently had on the air? Adlon, for her part, understandably asked for privacy and room to process a development that was as much personal as professional. For his part, network president John Landgraf emphasized Adlon’s ultimate ownership of her and C.K.’s joint creation: “It’s Pamela’s show, these are her stories, this is her life,” he told the Television Critic’s Association in January 2018. “She’s the creative engine of that show.”

The impulse to stress a woman’s agency over her higher-profile male colleague is a good one, as is the refusal to punish Adlon for C.K.’s indiscretions. Better Things is Adlon’s brainchild before anything else; despite their stylistic similarities, there were important and telling distinctions between it and Louie even before C.K.’s actions retroactively made him a toxic asset. Where C.K.’s story of life post-divorce was a self-flagellating portrait of unmoored masculinity, Adlon’s is something much more optimistic. What comes after the nuclear family is, in her view, something unorthodox and taxing and routinely underappreciated, not least by her own kids, but also beautiful in its chaos.

Yet it was also valid to wonder what a post-C.K. Better Things would look like. In interviews leading up to the season, Adlon has finally elaborated on her feelings toward C.K. beyond her brief initial statement. “It felt like the world was ending,” she told The New Yorker, before stipulating: “I just need to focus. I don’t want to have to weigh in on his [stand-up] sets.” There’s an apparent understanding that the elephant in the room must be acknowledged, but also an insistence that Adlon hasn’t so much as communicated with C.K. for months. She’s ready to move on.

The closest Better Things gets to incorporating this ordeal along with the rest of Adlon’s biography is an episode where Sam calls out blatant safety violations on the set of her action film. The incident is an effort to highlight the abuses of power that don’t technically fall under the umbrella of #MeToo, since they don’t involve sexual harassment, but are very much in the spirit of calling attention to inequities in the workplace. It’s also part of Better Things larger project of depicting Hollywood as a workplace, if an unconventional one. Show business is populated by many more laborers like Sam than stars like the movie-within-a-show’s fictional director. Their lives are unglamorous, down to the union bylaws and contract provisions that govern them; they’re also worth examining.

The scene feels like a microcosm of this new Better Things, continuing series-long concerns in lightly adjusted ways. Adlon’s stylistic hallmarks remain in place: the cold opens, many of which see Sam wrestle with the indignities of aging; the astonishing rudeness and occasional poignance of the Fox kids; the loose, lived-in portrayals of Sam cooking dinner for her makeshift family, a medley of actual blood relations and longtime friends. In a conversation with The New York Times, Adlon described channeling her anguish into Better Things in a way that built on the show’s ethos instead of distracting from it: “I wanted to see these women kind of unraveling. I wanted [the theme of the season to be about] the changes of your life and honoring that. Which is very much kind of a vintage Better Things thing.”

Better Things has never been especially interested in plot, yet another reason behind-the-scenes drama threatened to overwhelm the understated, unpretentious show itself. But the power of its slice-of-life approach to storytelling remains undiluted, particularly because the life it’s excerpting remains so unusual for the center of a TV show. Hollywood stories may be a dime a dozen; stories about single moms in their 50s with nontraditional gender presentation less so. All Better Things had to do to prove its durability was continue being itself.