The elevator pitch for Better Things might make the series sound an awful lot like a female-centric answer to Louie. Sam Fox, a fictionalized version of star Pamela Adlon, is an actress and single mother doing her best to balance the responsibilities in her life. The comparisons between the two shows are especially hard to avoid since Adlon, who co-created Better Things with Louis C.K., is best known for her Emmy-nominated role of Pam on Louie. Sam has a lot of the same qualities as Pam: Both are snarky, outspoken, and without much of a filter. Qualities like these normally stretch thin quickly when embodied in a lead character, but Sam is more dynamic than Pam. She’s overworked, undersexed, fed up with her kids, and frustrated with her mother, yet she’s able to offset her often grating personality with not just a refreshing honesty and warmth, but with unconventional parenting choices that include surprisingly frank conversations with her children.
Better Things is at its best when showcasing the interplay between Sam and her daughters, portrayed by three outstanding actresses representing different stages of young womanhood: the magnetic Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest, and the only one fully on her mother’s side; Frankie (Hannah Alligood), who possesses a clear sense of identity and thirst for social activism that we typically don’t associate with grade-school-aged characters; and eldest sibling Max (Mikey Madison), who has the most tumultuous relationship with her mother. A role like Max’s could have easily been cast as a stock teenage character, a whiny and rebellious pain, but Better Things takes its time proving that 16-year-old girls aren’t so black and white.
Sam has no desire to be best friends with her children, yet she creates a dynamic that allows them to feel like they can be candid with her, like when Duke offers her opinion about Sam dating a friend’s father, or when Max musters the courage to ask her mother to buy her marijuana. Sometimes the script is flipped and Sam acts like a petulant child, literally kicking and screaming her way through arguments and thus forcing the kids into the role of the more levelheaded and mature ones.
While the series thrives during intimate character moments such as these, there are aspects of the narrative that seem contradictory. Even though Sam doesn’t land the acting roles she really wants, her career is stable enough to support her family and her presumably deadbeat ex-husband. She’s generally dissatisfied with her job prospects and appears thankful for every opportunity thrown her way, and yet she informs a director on set that she doesn’t feel comfortable filming a sex scene for fear of what Max’s friends will think. For a series otherwise grounded in small human moments, Better Things spends too much time asking the audience to sympathize with the plight of an upper-middle-class white actress who’s biggest problems seem to be that she’s occasionally passed up for the likes of Julie Bowen and Rachel McAdams.
The series is unafraid to take on hot topics, but it doesn’t let discussions of those issues unravel organically. Some themes are evoked suddenly and then quickly abandoned, like when Sam tries to find new ways to sexually pleasure herself. These under-developed come and go so abruptly one has to wonder if they were meant to be left on the cutting-room floor. Conversely, some arcs are so drawn out that they halt any momentum created by the top-notch character work. In a two-minute scene in the pilot episode, a text-message conversation is scored to a cover of Judy Collins’s “Both Sides Now,” the kind of on-the-nose sentimentality that sometimes plagues Louie. One episode of Better Things takes nearly its entire runtime setting up a budding relationship between Sam and a co-worker (Lenny Kravitz) while trying to explore the complexities of implicit racism, but the groundwork is sullied with a tonally jarring punchline in the third act. These aren’t fatal storytelling misfires, but they prevent a good series from achieving greatness.