Most of us are familiar with Pamela Adlon’s voice. She played Bobby Hill on King of the Hill, along with like a bajillion other cartoon and video game characters over the past few decades. But it wasn’t until 2010 when Louis C.K. cast her in Louie—a show on which she also has producing and writing credits—that we got a fuller picture of the talent and humor of the person behind the voice. (She was also in C.K.’s underrated Lucky Louie in 2006 but I think only me and five other people watched it.)
It’s been a long time coming, but Adlon now finally has her own show. Produced by C.K., the Louie vibe is unmistakable here (C.K. also directed the pilot and has writing credits on all five of the episodes FX gave us). But it would be insultingly reductive to suggest this show is little more than Louie from a female perspective. Both shows share elements, to be sure, but Better Things is its own—uh—thing. Feeling at once original and familiar, it’s engaging and funny right out of the gate and is absolutely worth a look.
While it’s true Adlon and C.K. are both in the entertainment industry and that this experience factors heavily into both of their shows, they broke into the industry in extremely dissimilar ways. C.K. did stand-up and worked as a comedy writer, while Adlon took the talent route for most of her career. Therefore, her character in Better Things, Sam, hops from audition to audition and lands a mixed bag of creative and commercial, live-action and voice work.
Of course, another huge difference between Louie and Sam is that Sam is a middle-aged woman. We therefore get to see the bias of casting directors, wary of hiring her because she’s not young or blonde enough and watch as Sam considers dropping a bundle of cash on face and neck lifts.
Outside of the entertainment world, we’re also shown the difficulty of being a single parent with three daughters, juggling all the demands of parenthood while still trying to have a dating life. Sometimes both sides of Sam’s life conflict like when she has to decide if it’s worth doing a nude scene (likely informed by Pamela Adlon’s role on Californication) that her daughters (or her daughters’ friends or friends’ parents) may one day see broadcast on television.
It may seem silly to suggest that, simply by being about a middle-aged single mother, this show is doing something groundbreaking, but, well, it kind of is. This isn’t exactly a demographic that gets a lot of primetime love and it certainly isn’t usually presented with such barefaced honesty.
Another thing in common with Louie is the realistic, slice-of-life quality that makes episodes often feel more like a short film than television. Characters crack up at each other’s jokes or at the ridiculousness of the situations they’re in. Conflicts center around everyday hurdles: Sam trying to find graph paper in a department store, being in charge of bringing the after-practice snack for her daughter’s soccer team, having a guy over for an awkward dinner with her kids and her mother.
But unlike Louie, Better Things is more okay with hewing to television storytelling conventions. On C.K.’s own show, he would randomly dip into the surreal and his approach to plotting was to just write a story until he’d had enough of it. This resulted in episodes that would shuffle through three totally unrelated plots or, in one case, one huge story told over a whopping six episodes. I always felt the unpredictability of Louie was exciting but that its rejection of convention also meant the show often lost the ability to build to truly impactful payoffs.
Better Things still has that life-on-display, warts-and-all vibe, but the plots are more focused and a little more sitcom-like. And, just five episodes in, the series is already pulling off meaningful character development. Sam’s teenage daughter, Max (Mikey Madison) at first seems to have no defining characteristic besides being obnoxiously confrontational, but the series lands a great emotional payoff by revealing more layers to her character over multiple episodes.
Better Things is already shaping up to be one of the most interesting comedies of the TV fall season. With very few core people at the creative helm (Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. appear to be the only regular writers), it’s got the honest, authored feeling of Louie, but with more of the familiar structural trappings of a classic sitcom, resulting in more accessible and satisfying storytelling. It’s also just exciting and a lot of fun to see Pamela Adlon’s personality and talent finally properly expressed through a work that’s all her own. She’s been awesome and hilarious all along and it’s about time we all took notice.
Better Things premieres Thursday, September 8th at 10 PM ET/PT on FX.