One’s first reaction to “Better Things” is probably a comparison, however favorable, to Louis C.K.’s now-defunct comedy “Louie.” Both shows feature unique insights into show business from funny people in the industry. Both are shot with an eye toward realism seen in the lighting, cinematography and scenarios captured. Both half-hour comedies even come from FX.
Most importantly, though, both series are heavily influenced by Pamela Adlon. Adlon, an actress turned writer, director, producer and more, is a face many will recognize from a variety of impressive projects. She’s been writing with C.K. since his HBO sitcom, “Lucky Louie,” debuted in 2006, and, indeed, all of her credited writing experience is alongside the superstar comedian. She played a big part (both onscreen and off) in shaping “Louie,” blurring the lines between how she influenced his show and how he influences hers.
But now it’s Adlon’s turn to be in the driver’s seat with “Better Things,” a comedy co-created by the long-term writing partners, and one that (this early on) already feels like it could surpass its predecessor.
Told from an assuredly feminist perspective, “Better Things” follows Sam, a working actress living in Los Angeles with her three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward). Her mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), lives next door and remains a near-constant presence in her daughter’s home, but Sam’s focus remains on her children, job and personal life — Phyllis is allowed to invade only when invited.
Within this attitude toward her mother — as well as the main cast’s exclusively female composition — is Sam’s enviable outlook: Self-sacrificing to a point, she will do anything for her family, but not at the expense of herself. The fourth episode of the series perfectly captures the full chaos of Sam’s life, as we bear witness to an elaborate casting process that holds her career in the balance, all while her children stir up a maddening amount of trouble at home.
It would have been easy for the episode to devolve into another story of how being a mother makes losing individuality worth it in the end. While Sam wouldn’t necessarily argue with that notion, she’s impressively independent from and with her kids. Many chronicles of parental frustration focus on the mother as a martyr instead of a real human being with thoughts, desires and needs all her own, but Adlon finds a way to externally encapsulate so much of her inner monologue that we fully understand her motivations, start to finish.
Her mind is presented via stream of consciousness storytelling that should feel familiar to “Louie” devotees. Held together by themes both specific and broad, “Better Things” bounces from subject to subject with a keen eye for connective tissue. Sometimes an episode can follow a chronological trajectory interrupted by momentary moving images meant to convey flashes of memory. Others use vignettes to tie together larger points, but every episode gives equal weight to Adlon’s various vexations, thoughts and aspirations.
Not fully confrontational but certainly assertive, “Better Things” is almost surprisingly funny given its depth. Adlon’s self-awareness certainly helps, and her specific sense of humor inspires an alluringly exuberant aura around the show — yet without the stand-up bits in between scenes (like “Louie”) to help even out the drama. “Better Things,” like many of today’s deep comedies, doesn’t construct itself around jokes, but it still feels inspired by them.
After five episodes, “Better Things” is a more intimate experience than “Louie”; less snarky and more focused on what makes life worthwhile rather than what makes it meaningless. And it’s important to note that motherhood isn’t why. While “Louie” let people into the inner workings of the comedian’s POV, Adlon’s adventures feel unrestricted in a new way. Even when she is regulated by the demands of her children, job and friends, Sam’s viewpoint remains clear, her stance true and priorities sound.
Despite constant comparisons up to this point, it’s best not to think about “Louie” at all. Adlon has more than earned her time in the spotlight, and her voice is what makes “Better Things” fresh, vibrant and real. Next to the rest of fall’s crowded lineup of new TV, it’s unlikely you’ll find a show as refreshing, nuanced and confidant, nor will you witness a talent as consistently sharp as Adlon herself. Because of the series’ non-linear construction, it’s impossible to know where we’ll be at the end of Season 1. But we already feel confidant that better things are on the horizon.