There are a lot of Really Good Comedies on television right now. In fact, there are an overwhelming number of Really Good Comedies competing for your attention right this moment. That’s why I keep blabbing to every person I meet about FXX’s You’re The Worst. Yet, there’s another comedy on its sister network FX even I have been unknowingly missing out on: comedian Pamela Adlon’s Better Things. The series, now in its second season, is a quiet, movingly hilarious mediation on women, mothering, and family, and I didn’t begin watching it until a few weeks ago. Thursday night’s “Eulogy,” written and directed by Adlon, is the episode that drives home exactly why everyone should be watching Better Things. Because, honestly, the installment is a better thing than basically anything else on TV.
“Eulogy,” begins on a fairly comedic and light-hearted step. Lead Sam Fox (Adlon) is teaching an acting class and then goes to film a car commercial. Clearly, acting is a huge chunk of Sam’s life, since these two fairly basic scenes take up nearly half the episode, clocking in at over 10 minutes. “Eulogy” is only 22 minutes. Despite all of the hard work Sam does, her daughter Max (Mikey Madison) still changes the channel when her mom’s face pops up on the TV screen during a family hangout session. Sam is rightfully insulted, explaining it “sucks” her kids don’t “give a shit” about her career now. Everyone agrees the actor’s three children will appreciate her when she’s dead, so, Sam demands a eulogy from them right this moment. Max and her little sister Frankie (Hannah Alligood) refuse to say even one supportive sentence about their mom, driving a hurt Sam from the house.
The entire exchange feels stunningly realistic, since the comedy doesn't fill the tense conversation with jokes. Instead, it's the actual child-parent shady aggression we've all seen in our living rooms during high school. This is why the scene when Sam returns to her home is one of the most moving moments on TV in 2017. When Sam gets back to the Fox abode, her friends Phyllis (Celia Imrie) and Rich (American Housewife’s Diedrich Bader) have turned the space into Sam’s dream funeral. Then, a tearful Max and Frankie read their honest eulogies to their mother. The tears weren’t fake, Madison confirmed to Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “Pamela, Hannah, and I, we were completely inconsolable the entire time,” the actress explains, adding the process made her think about her own mother. “I was crying the whole time. So, there were takes where I’m sobbing and takes where it’s more stoic. They used one where [it] was a more gradual descent into the tears.”
Anyone would be moved towards a “descent into tears,” considering just how intense Max’s eulogy is. “I was jealous that people knew her before I did. And I never wanted to share her. Not even with my sisters, because I remember when it was just me and her,” Max reveals between sniffles. “Even when my dad was there, it was just me and her. I know that was hard for her, but I loved it. So I don’t like that she’s famous or on TV. She’s my mother. I learned from her how to be a woman, and how to be a person.” By the end the speech, she's too overwhelmed to finish her sentence.
If this kind of eulogy seems intensely raw, that’s probably because the Better Things team had Madison and her TV sister Alligood write their own eulogies for Adlon to get the “feel of the scene,” Max’s real-life alter ego reveals. That filming method led to an “organic” atmosphere on-set. “Before the scene I had kind of jokingly asked Pamela to tell me something sad before the first take — and she really did.” Madison recalls. “To see her with that emotion really leveled me and brought me to the perfect place for a scene.”
This explains how the lengthy funeral captures the many levels of how a teenager feels about her mother, rather than offering us yet another cliched bratty teen. “[Max] behaving the way she does isn’t because she’s self-centered, it’s because she’s trying to deal with the fact that she’s becoming her own person. Max needs her mom but also resents [that fact],” Madison says of her “willful and reckless” character. “Max is possessive and rejecting all at once.”
While observing how truly wrecked both Max and Frankie are by fully considering their mother’s unavoidable funeral, even if she’s currently still alive and well, it’s easy to question whether Sam should have made such a heavy demand. Was she wrong to push her children into such a bleak frame of mind? Madison doesn’t think so, saying Sam's possibly-haunting reaction to feeling “taken for granted” in the most relatable way results in the Fox women getting exactly what they all needed. “At the end of the episode, what comes out during the eulogies is genuine feelings,” the FX star says. “Each of these girls got to explore their own feelings with Sam.”
It's rare to hear so much talk of feelings and crying while talking about what is allegedly a comedy. And, it sounds like Better Things' unflinching sad-com vibes will continue for the rest of season 2, as Madison teases in upcoming episodes we'll see how Sam's friend Rich is “almost like a father figure to Max in a lot of different ways.” I assume I should order another pack of tissues now.
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