Sam Fox is a cool mum. Not in a Mean Girls kind of way but in a sincerely cool way. She’s working as an actress in Los Angeles, bounding between strange jobs and uninspiring auditions, and living in a big, beautiful house with her three daughters. She’s very tired but relentlessly engaged in their lives. She can turn up at school to give a momentarily awkward but overall empowering speech about periods, or be spotted taking an emergency break from a booty call to retrieve the condom she found in her eldest daughter’s room – a traumatic discovery that, hours later, was a real life-saver.
It’s this flitting between emotional markers that you’ll really love. One minute the show is walking you down a difficult path: fertility, death, dysfunctional relationships, ageing – all familiar hurdles addressed through the eyes of an adult woman. And just before you get too deep into the nitty-gritty heaviness of the topic matter, Pamela Adlon, who plays Sam, will bring you right back with a gag you didn’t see coming. You’ll still be touched by that emotional moment, but you’ll laugh your way out of any uneasiness when Better Things gets real.
What could quite easily have become one of those too glossy portrayals of a single woman with a salon-fresh blow-dry winning at motherhood, is instead the opposite. Better Things is a low-key comedy that revels in the familiar ups and downs of life without making you feel shit about your own. That magic is thanks to its writer, director and star, Adlon, who drew from her own life as a working actress and single mother of three to tell this story.
"No, I’m dating my daughters. They’re my love life," Sam tells a friend at an audition early in the first season. The eldest is Max (Mikey Madison), who revels in the teenage resentment young women feel entitled to express towards their mothers. Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is whip-smart, rather mean and in the middle. Duke (Olivia Edward) is the youngest and surprisingly foul-mouthed as you get to know her a little better.
We also learn that Sam’s erratic, ageing mother Phil (Celia Imrie) lives next door, which is as much a burden as it is a blessing in disguise. Sam’s life is wrapped around these four, who depend on her far more heavily than any of them cares to admit. It’s classic mum material that, instead of wallowing in the 'I work so hard and I’m underappreciated' schtick, finds hilarity in the mundanity of teenage and elderly dependents spontaneously combusting around you. There’s an episode in season two where Sam stages her own funeral to nudge her daughters into expressing how much she means to them. Indulgent? Of course. Touching? Absolutely, but in a way that doesn’t make you feel silly about falling for it.
The first series aired in America on FX in 2016 but only arrived on the BBC this year, bringing with it new excitement about a third season under a new creative team, still led by Adlon but without Louis CK, with whom the network severed ties after season two. Just four episodes into the third series, though, and it was announced that Better Things had been renewed for a fourth instalment, due to hit TV screens next year. In the meantime you should get better acquainted with Adlon and the gloriously witty, insightful and understated world she’s created, because Better Things has a genius way of discussing love, life and womanhood that’ll resonate deeper in those 22-minute episodes than you anticipate.