I really wanted to love Better Things. It stars a female comedian, and is executive produced and co-written by a female comedian — in fact, it's even been labeled the female version of Louie (a comparison I found problematic, though I appreciate the intentions of the phrase: Yaaass, girl power!). So I went into the FX series with high expectations. Unfortunately, I liked it, but didn't love it. Pamela Adlon stars as Sam, a divorced single mother of three daughters, ranging from elementary school age to teenage years. Sam is a former child star who voiced a popular cartoon (and still does, which is reminiscent of Adlon's own real-life voice work), but is trying to break into a real acting career. She juggles her professional aspirations and attempts at dating with raising three daughters, offering a chuckle-inducing look at that elusive idea of "having it all." Adlon brings on some laughs, especially in a scene that finds her arguing with her teenager in the rain while narrowly avoiding her dog getting hit by a car. My favorite scene is between Sam and her youngest daughter, Duke. They're in the bathroom when Sam gets a phone call; we see on the other end that the caller is an awkward man struggling to make conversation. Sam looks down at Duke and rolls her eyes. "Sophie's dad," she tells the tween, who responds, "Ew." Sam explains, "Yea, that was a big mistake." Duke immediately suggests, "What about Charlize's dad?" Sam asks, "What about him? Is he tall?" It's a moment we don't see much of on television: A mother discussing her dating life with her kid, a refreshing look at the intricacies of parenthood and, specifically, single motherhood.
Adlon is truly convincing as an overwhelmed mother whose main tool to battle stress is sarcasm.
But otherwise, I was a little underwhelmed by the pilot — aside from the above examples, it wasn't as funny as I'd hoped. The episode is only half an hour, but the scenes feel like they drag a bit, and the relationship between Adlon's Sam and her kids isn't quite believable. Plus, a few of the comedic bits feel a tad forced, like when Adlon is caught googling "mature lady porn" and her middle daughter walks in, or when her oldest daughter asks her for help getting "organic" pot. It could very well be that I didn't connect with the pilot because I don't have kids, so maybe I just couldn't relate. But I felt like my lack of connection went beyond relatability, and was more about a lack of chemistry on screen and some writing that landed with a thud. Not to mention the show shares the same issue I have with a lot of other TV series these days: There were no brown faces, save for the man working the sound booth at the recording studio where Sam does voice-overs, and the guy working at the office supply store. Of course. I'll give Adlon the benefit of the doubt and hope that some minority characters might show up later in the season, but the initial view of her character's world is pretty homogenous. Would it really be so far-fetched if maybe one of her kids' friends were Black, or perhaps one of the women auditioning with her for a role could be Latina? With all of the discussion about women and diversity in Hollywood lately, it's hard to believe the thought completely slipped Adlon and the creators' minds. Still, I do believe Better Things has potential. There is a sweet scene when Sam and her daughter fall asleep together in bed, and Aldon is truly convincing as an overwhelmed mother whose main tool to battle stress is sarcasm. I'll stay tuned for the rest of the season, if only because I'm an Adlon fan, and I love that she and the team are telling a different type of story — and bringing more women both behind and in front of the camera. More power to them; I just hope to see more diverse women show up in those places, too — and maybe some funnier jokes.