Midway through the final season of “Better Things,” Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) takes a break from a directing gig for a quick chat with the producer. Their day hasn’t been easy. The child actor won’t (or can’t) stop shouting his lines. His mom isn’t helping, demanding her son be called by his character’s name and insisting he has a “hard out” well ahead of wrap. The sitcom’s star, played by Ron Cephas Jones, is friends with Sam and has been cordial to her… until he snaps when she tries to do her job and, you know, direct him.
Throughout it all, the producer, Eli (Lena Waithe), has been silent yet sympathetic. She sees what’s going on, offering a knowing glance or supportive nod while Sam deals with problems that existed long before she took over the director’s chair. As it turns out, those problems are part of the reason she hired Sam. “You know actors, you know crews, you learned everybody’s name, and you’re going to get me home in time to help my kid with their homework,” Eli says during their brief break. She knows Sam as a responsible, attentive director who can do the job, but she also knows she brings compassion, practicality, and understanding wherever she goes. “I love making TV. It’s a dream come true. But if I can’t spend time with my family, what’s the point?”
Eli’s recognition is about as close as “Better Things” gets to articulating its own purpose, let alone what it’s accomplished in five exquisite seasons. Adlon’s FX gem — which she stars in, directs, writes, showruns, and produces — is built around ideas often treated as contradictory: following your passions and prioritizing your family. Yet unlike Liz Lemon on “30 Rock” or Leslie Knope from “Parks and Rec,” Sam Fox isn’t wondering if she can have it all; she’s focused on blending the lessons from every part of her life and taking them out into the world.
The final 10 episodes begin like other season premieres: with Sam’s kids leaving or returning home. Max (Mikey Madison), her eldest, is hunting for her own apartment in Hollywood. Duke (Olivia Edward), her youngest, puts in her grocery order from the road, so her favorite food will be stocked when she gets home from a trip with her father, Xander (Matthew Glave). Frankie (Hannah Riley) is watching her friends go off to college, while she plots her next move from Sam’s communal dwelling.
One way or another, the young’uns are leaving the nest, and their departures have Sam thinking not only about the future, but the past. Next door, her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), is packing up unwanted belongings and giving them to charity. “Gran, I found this box with a bunch of post-its — it’s like you’ve been preparing to die since 1997,” Frankie says, to which the unflappable Phil responds, “Of course.” Sam is more hesitant to part with family heirlooms. She sees her history in these long forgotten artifacts, even reorganizing an old box of baseball cards she can’t remember collecting. Then she digs deeper. Along with her brother, Marion (Kevin Pollak), Sam gets the results from last season’s genealogy test, ooo-ing and ah-ing with every new statistic and familial revelation.
“That makes me feel like we’re a part of a greater chain of history and humanity,” she says. “It gives me confidence somehow; like I’m important, and you are.” (The Fox family has deep roots in Ukraine, which gives her embrace of a global family added resonance now, for all of us.) Still, despite the emphasis she puts on family, Sam isn’t a martyr; she doesn’t solely identify as someone’s mother or daughter or sister — not like at least one mom she meets, who can’t remember who she was before she had her son and would rather wallow in too much sake than think about a future without him. Sam is ready to set her own path.
After forgiving her vampire of an ex last season, she’s let go of the hate that clouded her judgement. Before, she struggled to encourage relationships because her bad one was so prominent. Now, when Rich (Diedrich Bader) comes to her asking for advice about an old boyfriend, Sam is quick to protect her friend, yet quicker than before to check her own bias. Later, her only response to a questionable romantic rekindling is to keel over in hysterics. Even when challenged, Sam is in a good place, and it opens doors emotionally and professionally.
It also creates a considerable number of laughs. For a series often cited as a tear factory, “Better Things” Season 5 is the straight-up funniest season to date, filled with boisterous montages, endearing quips, and the now-standard array of amiable character actors putting their best foot (or voice) forward. (Bader, Pollak, and Rosalind Chao, as Marion’s surly wife Caroline, are worth their weight in gold.) Perhaps most significantly, Sam spends so many episodes laughing off asshole after asshole. Whether it’s a detrimentally rude receptionist, an intolerant loudmouth on a flight, a selfish jogger, or a slew of insensitive fans, Sam can diffuse the situation and turn it in her favor by responding to irrationality with stern guidance and reason. And for viewers, each combustible situation is gaily spun into a fit of chuckles.
The series finale and plenty of moments leading up to it indeed prove affecting, and I’d be lying if I claimed to be dry-eyed throughout. But it can be reductive to discuss “Better Things” in these terms. While capturing a broad spectrum of emotions, the feeling most often elicited is joy. Much of it comes from Sam herself; Adlon’s performance bursts with life, be it her bounty of expressions, renowned voice, or persistent passion. Still more, her framings are both specific and expansive — shifting between diegetic cameras tied to each character (Sam’s GoPro footage, Max’s black-and-white stills, Duke’s grainy camcorder) — until the largess of included perspectives draws you inside each episode’s reality. “Better Things” can feel experimental in its style and construction, but it’s carefully woven together; the scripts from Adlon and her small writing team are elegant in each half-hour and, when put together over the full season, make for beautiful, invigorating television.
Back on that break in production, Eli tells Sam another reason she was hired for this show: As a kid, Eli watched Sam as a child actor on TV. Her work has always inspired Eli to follow her dreams. “I tell people all the time I grew up in a two-parent household: my mom and the TV,” Eli says. “You helped raise me.”
With “Better Things,” Adlon takes that idea a step further. Season 5 unites Fox and Adlon, Adlon and her art, in more profound ways than ever. “Better Things” has always been inspired by Adlon’s past as a mother, filmmaker, and person out in the world. Her talents allow viewers to share in that adventure, internalizing each event as if Sam was part of your family. Season 5 feels like a summation, crafted into a catalyst, actualizing the promise inherent to its title. Better things are here, they’re all around us, you just have to look.
Sam comes to appreciate her life, even as it changes, even as things get scary. While others recede or give up, she and her family — her mother, especially — push forward, seeking new experiences to savor and people to share them. Not one thing defines who she is or who she’s going to become. Not a man, not her age, not even her kids. In combining her time as a mother, as a friend, as a part of the entertainment industry, the final season is about understanding yourself, your family, your neighbors, and using that knowledge to inspire and entertain; to create and come together; to not just hope for better things, but to bring them forth and multiply. The triumph of “Better Things” is that it shows us the way.
“Better Things” Season 5 premieres with two episodes Monday, February 28 at 10 p.m. ET on FX. New episodes premiere weekly and are available to stream on Hulu.