The last time Pamela Adlon took part in a perfect season of television, it was 2007. The same year “Mad Men” debuted and a year before anyone had heard of “Breaking Bad,” Adlon co-starred in the Showtime comedy “Californication” alongside David Duchovny. While subsequent seasons dipped further and further beneath the high bar set in Season 1, the first 12 episodes of Tom Kapinos’ exploration of Southern California culture through the lens of an unwilling New Yorker are pretty damn untouchable.
They were also pretty thoroughly masculine. Once summed up (by my sister) as the most beautifully written soft core porn on TV, “Californication” didn’t exactly shirk its female characters — including Adlon’s Marcy Runkle, a waxer of the stars — but its perspective was definitively and exclusively Hank’s (Duchovny): a good-hearted, sweet-talking troublemaker as eager to defend a damsel in distress as she was to bed him in thanks. And there were many, many damsels.
The friendship that developed between Hank and Marcy was one of the show’s great underutilized highlights, but the bond between the onscreen duo appears even more authentic nine years later. Duchovny appeared in the third episode of “Better Things,” playing an actor unable to take direction or even understand the script’s nuances. Full of himself and innocently ignorant, Duchovny’s cameo proved a treat for even those who didn’t watch “Californication” because of how perfectly he contradicted Adlon’s character, Sam — a single mother of three girls smart enough to carry him through a scene and woo the film’s acclaimed director to boot.
The point of this trip down memory lane is to illustrate how far we’ve come not just in television, but in great television. “Californication” Season 1 was, as mentioned, exemplary TV, but it feels like we’re just now getting the other side of that coin. We’ve seen dozens of stories about single men’s mid-life crises — including co-creator and frequent collaborator Louis C.K.’s “Louie” — but very few focusing on women handling their shit. “Better Things” doesn’t showcase a brothel of men, nor does it make Sam into some sort of tortured genius. She’s simply living. How thoughtfully that life is realized, with such incredible nuance and authenticity, is what makes the show, from start to finish, insightful and inspiring.
But it also sets aside the male point of view because, really, who needs it? Throughout the first season, “Better Things” always made sure to honor, respect and openly discuss modern femininity over any predictable subplot focused on the opposite sex. Many of Sam’s dates or date-like endeavors served a higher purpose than the “will they or won’t they” question driving male-centric series. That director she charmed? Well, the standout moment of their family dinner was how clearly uncomfortable Sam’s mother was with a black man coming to dinner. Such fresh focus established Adlon’s as an important voice on TV, and the ballsy creator herself made the series unique. Whether it was Sam literally taking the stage to talk about periods or her many misadventures with neighbor Nana, Adlon’s series is done her way, and never is that felt more than in the finale.
Especially biting when skewering men’s over-inflated egos, Episode 10, “Only Women Bleed,” thrived on deceptively casual scenarios captured with great care; such as when Sam was tasked with getting her kids to school while being asked to flirt with “nobody” on the other end of a sext exchange. The lengthy scene is captured with a consistent, light beat driving the action and keeping everything on an even keel as more and more visitors showed up at Sam’s front door, but the key arc takes Sam from squeezing in a moment to take a picture of her breasts to giving up on the man’s plea altogether.
Cut to her stuck in traffic and talking to the same guy for some one-way phone sex, and we see how little investment she has in this guy. Twice she cuts him off: the first to answer a call from Frankie’s school and again with uncaring finality after he self-completed, mid-“I love you.” It’s not that men don’t matter, it’s that their needs — and thus their most common stories — pale in significance to life’s other issues.
Much like Sam dismisses her suitor, the episode doesn’t concern itself with anything unimportant to its characters. It’s a half-hour curated for the women within it, about their day-to-day lives, their joys, struggles, and understanding, including Frankie’s self-discovery in what could prove to be a fascinating Season 2 arc. It’s handled beautifully here, with Frankie plainly denying the assumption she’s a boy and focusing on the “nasty” behavior of her classmates — Sam only realizes that her daughter might be lying later when the oldest sister, Max, confronts her later. Whether or not Frankie’s transitioning, confused, or in denial, the acceptance and frankness displayed both in the episode and throughout the season make this an ideal environment and family for examining such a difficult time in a young adult’s life.
The few images capping off the episode will stick with us until next year, if not longer. Edited together in the established, non-sequential style of the series and set to Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” (with the family singing along on a car ride), we see Sam climb into bed with Frankie, slowly shutting her computer screen to just be there with her. Meanwhile, Nana sits alone in her home, foreshadowing what’s facing Sam if she loses her connection with her kids; a connection made literal as Sam reaches behind the driver’s seat to grasp her youngest daughter’s hand, smiling and holding on for all she’s worth.
Capped off by an onscreen dedication to her daughters, Adlon’s finale is a powerful statement that — sans for Frankie’s possible arc — makes this season feel complete. So well did she capture the essence of motherhood along with the specificity of each character, “Better Things” could wrap without fault right here. Without fault, but not without complaint. Unlike the A-to-B arc that closed at the end of “Californication’s” first season, there are plenty more stories worth exploring with these impressive women.
Considering the generations depicted and the attitude of this outspoken family, the timely effect of the presidential election can’t be ignored in imploring FX to give Adlon more episodes. What’s here, written and shot well before we knew who would hold higher office in 2017, exemplifies what we need more of in this suddenly bleak dystopia: love, truth, and courage. Even if imagining better things ahead seems hard — better in general, and better than this season — these are the nasty women who will get us there.