Just when you think, “Oh, this is the through-line for Season 3,” Pamela Adlon takes “Better Things” in a whole new direction. Over the course of eight episodes, these standout moments slowly build into connections, the connections into loose themes, and the series into an endlessly watchable, yet utterly unquantifiable TV experience. In the end, there’s no one takeaway; there are dozens, and they’re delivered with the kind of beautiful storytelling that appears effortless, but actually requires acknowledgement on levels both granular and grand. “Better Things” is an unparalleled accomplishment, and a true original to boot.
Sam Fox (played by Adlon) starts the season by sending her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), to college in Chicago. The premise lends itself to expectations: an early fight reconciled in time for a sweet goodbye, with little comedic flourishes filling in the middle. Yet Adlon’s vignette structure ditches that formula early, and the premiere slides into unexpected territory outside the eponymous city, hinting at issues that will resurface in various forms throughout the season.
Fathers, for instance, are a theme of this mother-daughter story, as are ghosts — a popular motif even before the incredible Season 2 episode, “White Rock.” Adlon plays with spiritual boundaries and dream spaces to extraordinary effect. Sam’s father pops up on planes and in their home, in drug-induced hallucinations and after an average weeknight cocktail. He’s haunting his daughter in ways she can’t shake, similar to how her ex-husband Xander (Matthew Glave) shows up uninvited to Sam’s nightmares.
How Sam addresses each man — and the emotions they draw from her — is honest and grounded. Long stretches can pass without a sighting or mention of either, but Adlon isn’t ignoring or forgetting about them; she’s acknowledging Sam’s repression. She’s accepting how difficult it is for this tough woman to admit weakness or engage with the past; a bad habit that gets called out in a powerful scene sure to earn Adlon another Emmy nomination.
It’s doubtful Adlon would call her story choices courageous, but that doesn’t make them any less so. Unafraid to engage in topics usually kept off primetime television — from the challenges of menopause to heavy flow periods to the righteous anger surrounding the cultural deception of motherhood’s “joys,” Adlon puts it all out there. For catharsis, yes, but also for sheer accuracy, Adlon tackles issues unique to women with a verve few shows have ever embraced. Hell, she even pushes Sam to engage with positive and negative sexual awakenings in between montages of ill-fitting outfits and colonoscopy prep.
When “Better Things” Season 2 ended, it was November 2017. Louis C.K. had just admitted to sexual misconduct allegations published in The New York Times, and many of his projects were shelved or discarded entirely. Fans were worried what “Better Things,” a show co-created by C.K. and seen by many as his sequel to the Emmy-winning comedy series, “Louie,” would look like without him. After all, “Louie” featured Adlon onscreen and off; she was a co-star, writer, and producer of a series about a single father of daughters. With “Better Things,” the duo reversed roles to tell a story about a single mother of daughters, with C.K. behind-the-camera and Adlon leading the ensemble.
Critics urged fans not to worry; that “Better Things” was in Adlon’s blood and sprang from her mind far more than it was influenced or guided by her co-creator. Now, having seen eight episodes without C.K.’s involvement (he maintains a creator credit), that well-reasoned speculation is subjective truth. “Better Things” is different than it was; it’s Adlon’s first experience leading a writers’ room instead of hammering out scripts as a two-person team, but the changes aren’t drastic. They’re natural.
Scenes go all-in on topics in ways they would’ve only hinted at before. Time passes to fit what’s imperative; scenes are cut together to emphasize select moments, rather than flow through until the relevant material is covered. Yet Adlon shows patience and tremendous faith that her story will connect with people, and does it ever. There’s an openness, a willingness, a playfulness even, which wasn’t there before.
Season 3 is an evolution inspired by many but guided by one constant voice. Adlon packs her series with touching moments, hilarious set-ups, thoughtful reveries, heartbreaking choices, and relatable circumstances, all explored through unique, perceptive perspectives. Her series deserves to be dissected every week, even when the urge to keep watching, to stay in this world for as long as possible, proves impossible to resist. “Better Things” is the best of us, and even in February, it’s likely the best TV series of the year. Just when you think you’re on top of it, Adlon takes you somewhere new. And it’s unequivocally clear now we can trust her to keep doing exactly that.
“Better Things” Season 3 premieres Thursday, February 28 at 10 p.m. on FX.