The sixth episode of “Better Things” Season 2 is one of television’s best — not just of the year, but of the golden age and beyond.
Titled “Eulogy” and dedicated to the late Robert Michael Morris, who makes a brief cameo, the episode is intent on appreciating the consummate reality of everyday life while you’re living it. The season is, too. “Better Things” is a challenging, deeply rewarding, and ultimately miraculous experience because of how it draws extra attention to what matters and curtly dismisses what doesn’t. Both elements are typically communicated via frank remarks either profoundly moving or very, very funny (sometimes both) and each episode captures Pamela Adlon’s unique blend of stubborn — and often inappropriate — love in such a way you’ll wish more people acted as brashly genuine as she does. Hell, you may even start acting that way yourself.
Episode 6 makes a strong case for it. Opening on Sam Fox, Adlon’s single mother raising three kids as a working actress in Los Angeles, the half-hour moves quickly and confidently between acting lessons — where Sam tells her students they’re too eloquently masking the blemishes of real life — to a frustrated mother who’s sick of pretending her kids’ sarcasm is a welcome substitute for recognition.
“I don’t want to have to wait ’til I’m dead for my kids to appreciate me,” Sam says. “It really sucks that you don’t give a shit.”
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The episode summary simply says, “Sam demands satisfaction,” but it may as well have said, “Sam says the things parents aren’t allowed to say.” Moms, particularly, have been taught to suffer in silence, waiting for their children to grow mature enough to acknowledge them. Sam, though, talks about having the courage to expose your vulnerabilities in class and then follows through with her kids. She’s not going to wait for them to treat her like a human being when it’s obvious they’re capable of doing it now.
“Eulogy” makes everyone acknowledge the truth in front of them: from actors who are overly perfect to a family functioning on passive aggressive slights and equally acquiescent thank you’s, Sam is the one ready to say, “Enough is enough.”
Because of the workmanlike nature of the opening classroom scenes, it’s surprising how quickly the tears started flowing in its later half. Laughter and blubbering come together often enough in modern comedies, but “Better Things” necessitates unpacking those emotions because of how raw they feel in the moment. You may be chuckling, crying, or just thinking over a scene or two long after the episode ends, but you feel exactly what you’re supposed to feel while watching.
To say Sam Fox doesn’t take any shit isn’t entirely true; she’ll do anything for her daughters, but she never loses her identity. There’s a level of maturity within Sam that’s replicated by the series. To identify with her is to accept her contradictions; a melancholic episode illustrating her motherly adoration for her kids might be followed up by an episode where she flees the house without explaining where she’s going, shouting back at her daughters, “I don’t care. You guys can move out and get an apartment together [for all I care].”
Similarly, epiphanies arrive with an implied understanding; little to no exposition is given. Instead, viewers draw meaning from Sam’s subtle reactions and the series’ situational awareness.
In fact, the biggest exposition dump of the first seven episodes comes when Sam is asked — nay, commanded — to explain herself, in detail, by a man who just doesn’t get it. They’ve been seeing each other casually, and even though they clearly aren’t on the same page, he expects accommodations simply because he’s superficially nice (read: boring). When he’s upset by her frankness, he gets huffy, calls her mean, and tries to make her feel bad for not respecting him when he’s done nothing to earn it. So she lets him have it — explaining how she’s been overly generous in taking his sensitivities into account, going so far as to try to appreciate him over 10-plus dates. “You suck and I hang out with you,” Sam yells, earning applause from a few onlookers who’ve clearly been in a similarly dysfunctional relationship.
Sam Fox is clearly superior to her beau simply for trying — there’s that appreciation theme again — but “Better Things” never treats its audience like the man. Adlon and Louis C.K.’s writing doesn’t talk down to anyone. We’re the onlookers who’ve been where Sam’s been; who can empathize with her thanks to clear contextual clues. Moreover, we’ve seen that man’s story before. We’ve seen shows about fragile, emotional men who seek comfort in the arms of more emotionally intelligent women. “Better Things” takes a feminine perspective, though, to explain just why so many of those confused, self-indulgent men aren’t who they seem. They’re boring, and she can do better.
So can we. Viewers have drawn inevitable comparisons to C.K. and Adlon’s last series: Adlon was Emmy-nominated for her writing on “Louie,” and now C.K. is credited on every episode of Season 2 as the co-writer or sole scribe. Considering how heavily Louis C.K. is involved in the series he co-created, such connections are fair. But anyone still complaining about missing the semi-permanently suspended FX series should remember a key difference: “Louie” told a story in a way we’d never seen before, but “Better Things” tells a story about someone we’ve never seen before.
Both shows have strong, distinct personalities driving them forward. Both provide a varied look inside the entertainment industry. Both alternate between funny and sincere. But “Better Things” is an evolutionary step forward for C.K. and for television. “Louie” wasn’t one of those shows, like the man who’s too self-absorbed to consider his partner’s perspective, but it’s not hard to imagine the self-critical C.K. seeing himself that way. In “Better Things,” he and Adlon are able to transcend such concerns and tell fresh stories from a fresh angle for an audaciously intelligent take on responsibility, independence, and uncensored love.
Sam Fox is an absolute badass, talking the talk and walking the walk. We’ve never seen a character like her before, and her worldview has never been realized this clearly. We need more like her, and these “Things” are just the kind of stories that will deliver a better future.
“Better Things” Season 2 premieres Thursday, September 14 at 10 p.m. on FX.