This Better Things review contains spoilers.
Better Things Season 2
The first season of Better Things, based heavily on co-creator and star Pamela Adlon’s real life, followed Sam Fox, a middle-aged actress mom juggling auditions, dating, and the parenting of her three daughters: Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward). Co-created with Louis C.K., it has a similar slice-of-life feel to his series, Louie. However, it’s far more hopeful and far more controlled with its storytelling.
“September,” starts a solid foundation for a second season. Sam is throwing a party and the episode is set in her house for the duration. Directed by Adlon herself, it’s an impressively filmic episode. It all takes place in one location but feels grand with its use of artful camera pans and tracking shots that tail Sam as she maneuvers through the party.
The storytelling is a charming surprise in how it stealthily teases out conflict. Something Better Things has proven to be adept at is presenting a “day in the life” situation and then gradually revealing the problem that needs to be dealt with beneath it. For nearly half the episode, it almost feels like there’s no conflict; we’re simply checking in with Sam, her daughters, her friends, and her mother. Jumping around between everyone at the party is a great setup for a season premiere as it quickly and organically reacquaints us with all of these characters.
Frankie, the middle child, is still talented (she sings) and is alternatively an antagonist and a comrade to her mother. Duke, the youngest, is a shocking little hellion, who, left to her own devices with her friends, is playing truth or dare, daring one girl to stick four Monopoly houses up her vagina (“That’s the same as a hotel,” the lone boy of her friend group helpfully observes). Sam’s mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie) is still wonderfully inappropriate at all times, declaring right in front of Frankie that after Sam’s divorce the children “never quite bounced back.”
Sam remains a phenomenal, take-no-shit protagonist. When Duke makes one of her friends cry, rather than get involved, Sam tells Duke, “Okay, well, now that’s your problem.” Sam’s relationship with her mother, who she can only just barely stand, continues to be hilarious. When Phyllis comes over to her during the party and leans in close to whisper something, Sam recoils in wide-eyed horror.
The conflict is revealed to lie, as it often does, with Sam’s oldest, the 16-year-oldMax who is dating a guy in his thirties named Arturo. This isn’t a show of extremes, so Arturo isn’t a violent predator or anything; he’s just a creepy douchebag. The problem resolves quickly and fairly quietly, but it’s meaningful in its execution.
In a great scene, Max has to get over her natural teenage inclination to view her mom as the enemy and admit she’s in over her head. Sam then just tells the guy in her no-nonsense way that, duh, he shouldn’t be dating a 16-year-old. In a cornier sitcom, Sam would have a sum-up heart-to-heart with her daughter at the end, but this series is more realistic, ending with her choosing to leave Max alone with her thoughts for the remainder of the night.
I’m not going to go over everything that happens in “September” but there are numerous little asides and moments that elegantly provide character information while also serving to make the world feel real, like we’re actually looking in on this get-together and learning about all these people. It makes for a charming, down-to-earth, funny, gently sweet, and confident season premiere. It’s Better Things doing what it does best and it’s a great way to usher us into the new season.