The first season of FX’s Better Things, created by Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon, had the misfortune of debuting alongside one of the most exciting new series of 2016. Atlanta, the funky, mystical, hip-hop-adjacent comedy created by and starring Donald Glover, aired its first episode two days before the premiere of Better Things, also on FX. Glover’s show was so unlike any other half-hour comedy on TV, it cast Better Things in a more conventional light: Here was another wry cable sitcom about a well-off white person in Los Angeles who works in the entertainment industry.
Better Things, whose excellent second season premieres on September 14, is so much more than that. Adlon stars as Sam, who is, like Adlon, a divorced actor working the grind in L.A., where she lives with her three daughters, the roughly eight-year-old Duke (Olivia Edward), middle-schooler Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and teenage Max (Mikey Madison). (Adlon consults her real-life daughters when writing the scripts.) Like C.K.’s Louie, another FX comedy featuring Adlon, Better Things is a series of highly autobiographical snapshots peppered with surreal reveries — a briskly effective way to render the vertigo of life as a single working mother.
Adlon directed all ten episodes of the show’s second season, which begins with a typical Better Things gag. Sam’s face fills the screen in close-up; she sighs and shakes her head. (Adlon gives great mom face.) Then we pull back to see her sitting on a toilet before wearily rising and thrusting a plunger into the bowl. The scene echoes a first-season episode that begins with a shot of Sam’s face and bare shoulders, thrusting away — an image our cable-conditioned minds immediately link to sex, until we see that Sam is, yes, plunging a toilet.
Sam’s most common refrain on Better Things is a plea for a hand: “Why is nobody helping me?” she yells into the void. “Shall we step into my office?” Sam asks Max in the season two premiere. Cut to the laundry room.
Sam dates, and sleeps with, men, and one of her closest confidants is a (gay) male friend, Rich (Diedrich Bader). But her world, and the world of Better Things, is full of women and girls: She’s surrounded by her three daughters, her mostly female friends, and her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), who lives next door and is as exasperating as she is empathetic. Although Better Things shares a lot of its aesthetic DNA with Louie — hiring actors who look like real people, such as Rebecca Metz and Lucy Davis, who play Sam’s friends; inserting the occasional non sequitur; a general spirit of risk-taking — Adlon’s show explores a distinctly female experience of raising children, and of aging.
In one episode in the second season, Sam lies in bed, thinking about a man she just met; we see their meet-cute at the bar, and when her kids burst into her room and bound onto the bed, the little movie in her mind keeps playing, this time with New Age–y music accompanying it, her daughters’ murky, underwater voices in the background. The scene made me think of an early episode of Louie, in which Louie, riding the subway, spots a pool of brown liquid floating on an orange plastic seat. As he gazes at the spill, the scene switches from color to black-and-white, and a piece of classical music kicks in as he imagines himself getting up, taking off his jacket, and mopping up the mess while onlookers gratefully smile and nod — and a beautiful blonde appears before him, bending down suggestively, just out of the frame. In Louie’s fantasy, he’s a hero to a carful of strangers; in Sam’s, she has a nice conversation with a sweet divorcé. She’s not asking for much.
Still, one of current television’s more satisfying pleasures is hearing Sam cuss out the mediocre men in her life, which she does in the upcoming season with gusto. Sure, it’s hard raising kids and earning a living alone, but as Better Things so keenly demonstrates, it’s not always easy to do it with someone else, either.
Louie and Better Things are both offshoots of Lucky Louie, the short-lived sitcom that C.K. created and that ran on HBO for one season in 2007. Lucky Louie was a comment on the kitchen-sink family comedy, with C.K. as the everyman mechanic and Adlon as his wife, a nurse and a nag, and the mother of their young daughter. The series was a weird Frankenstein’s monster of sitcom conventions and cable freedom, a Honeymooners for a new millennium — a show shot in front of a live studio audience that allowed its characters to swear and even once showed a brief shot of C.K.’s junk.
Like the shows C.K. and Adlon would go on to make for FX, Lucky Louie was an attempt to represent the chaos and bullshit and claustrophobic warmth of family life in a more truthful way than the typical American sitcom did. Ten years later, with vastly expanded opportunities for talented television writers, these creators have the room and the resources to make that vision come to life, not as a “meta” deconstruction of a sitcom, but as a more candid, and formally inventive, expression of the single parent life.
It’s ironic that the existential upheaval of the television industry over the past decade has cleared the path for creators like Adlon to fully take advantage of the medium, but as Adlon proves, the half-hour episode is the perfect container for this kind of storytelling. The first season of Better Things ended with Sam’s realization that her middle daughter, Frankie, identifies as a boy. And yet the second season, or at least the seven episodes I’ve seen, leave this thread untouched. That’s life — things happen, and then other things happen, and those earlier things just start to blend into the background. In the meantime, there’s always another cranky toilet that needs a mother’s attention.
Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.