“Better Things” is no stranger to moments that draw on music as a way to punctuate a specific emotion. In Thursday’s memorable Season 3 finale, “Shake the Cocktail,” the episode culminates in a rousing choral performance of Florence + the Machine’s “Shake It Out.” It’s a companion piece to the blissful Episode 9-ending group rendition of “On the Street Where You Live,” as the family and friends of Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) watch Frankie (Hannah Alligood) take part in belting out a performance that captures all of the swirling anxiety and uncertainty that’s been hanging over many of the show’s central characters.
Adlon wrote and directed the episode, which weaves together a number of the threads of Sam’s personal life, from her evolving relationships with her children to finding a bit of reconciliation with close friend Rich (Diedrich Bader). For this season-capping crescendo, Bader said that Adlon wanted to film the performers first to make sure that their voices were at full strength for when they were shown.
Then, it was a matter of getting everyone else’s genuine response.
“You can’t fake those reactions. It was really genuinely beautiful. She had the chorus sing off-camera for us, which made it so powerful,” Bader said. “They’re so committed to the songs that they’re singing. The lyrics and the music is just so overwhelmingly powerful in the moment that you kind of get swept away. It’s very easy to do.”
Overall, the episode felt akin to last season’s “Eulogy,” which similarly found a single way to tie together the important people in Sam’s orbit. The main difference in “Shake the Cocktail” is that many of the pivotal moments in this finale were in public places, rather than the comfort of a living room. An early-episode fight between Sam and Rich happens during a meal at a crowded restaurant.
“That was a brilliant choice to make everything as public as possible. It changes the intimacy when you know that you could possibly be overheard,” Bader said. “What I love is that, with Pam, a lot of the incidents that are really important seem to happen by accident. A lot of life happens that way. You can never plan the perfect time to say something that’s real to someone. It just sort of blurts out and it happens. Capturing the accident of life is a difficult thing and I think really worthy of art.”
Part of the reason these finale moments feel so lived-in is by the nature of the show’s production. With “Better Things” having to shoot scenes for multiple episodes at once, that means as much as a month and a half of lead time for the actors to sit with the script and be prepared when the cameras roll. “There’s an ease with the performers, because they’re not searching for their lines. The script is what it is for so long. Everybody’s on the same page. Everybody’s ready to go. There’s a fluidity to it, but there’s also something that’s kind of rock solid. It’s a beautiful thing,” Bader said.
Even though it’s not a scene that Rich is in, Bader and Adlon have a fun connection to one of the other standout “Shake the Cocktail” scenes: an impromptu dance party to the “Phineas and Ferb” theme song. Both of them played voice parts on the Disney animated show and have gone on to play the title character’s parents on creators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh’s latest series, “Milo Murphy’s Law.”
“I love how she captures like this kind of moment in life, that the youngest daughter and the oldest daughter and her friends all shared this thing together, the theme song,” Bader said. “Pam wrote it in, she wanted it to happen, and then Disney basically was like, ‘It’s going to cost you a gajillion dollars.’ So she just called up Dan and Swampy and was like, ‘Can you help me out?’ And they did!”
Toward the close of the episode, there’s a moment that Rich and Sam share on the beach, a silent farewell of sorts to the season and an affirmation of their friendship. If there’s a full-circle feel to the way this season ends and looks forward at the same time, there is a reason — Bader says that scene came from footage originally filmed years ago for the show’s pilot.
“That scene was actually shot as part of the pilot. I was really sad about it because it was such a lovely scene. We had such a good time together, but they didn’t have time ultimately in the pilot to include it,” Bader said. “So [this episode] included the part where we’re shifting back and forth and loving each other. It was really fun to see that they called back to that time, three years ago. Every day something happens on this show that takes me out of myself. It’s a fascinating ride.”
“Better Things” Season 3 is currently available to stream via FX.