SERIES "Better Things"
WHEN|WHERE Season 3 premiere Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In this third season, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) has taken daughter Max (Mikey Madison) to college out East while other daughters, Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), are home in Los Angeles. After returning, Sam gets back to work as an actress in a bit part in big-budget slasher/monster flick. As usual, she's balancing her duties as a mom — increasingly complicated as Frankie (and soon Duke) enters puberty — with her work life. And yes, it's complicated.
MY SAY Adlon could have won an Emmy for best actress last September, or perhaps should have won an Emmy, but the "Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" express had left the station, and there was no stopping it. There was also the awkward issue of that co-creator name on the credits. This was, and most emphatically is, an Adlon creation, but the Louis CK creative participation, however tangential, didn't help her cause. She lost the Emmy while most casual TV viewers likely wondered, "what's 'Better Things' anyway?"
For a quick refresher, "Better Things" is about a single mom in L.A. raising three daughters, the youngest on the cusp of adolescence, the other entering college. Her mother, Phyllis, or "Phil" — played by the veteran British actress Celia Imrie — lives across the street, and is about as unobtrusive as Ray Barone's parents were.
Sam is beset: Those daughters, motherhood, mother, middle age, a flagging career, a nonexistent sex life. But Adlon plays her like she knows her, and like she is her. As good as Rachel Brosnahan's Midge Maisel is, you can occasionally spot the seamlines in the performance. There are no such seamlines here. Adlon is flawless — easily, effortlessly, the best comedic actress on television, at least until Julia Louis-Dreyfus arrives for her curtain call season on "Veep" in a few weeks. .
In this age where viewers — and especially TV critics — are so spoiled, it's a shame they will have to watch the third season week by week. "Better Things" is better consumed in a headlong rush, where the beats of Sam's life begin to become the beats of your life. It's a crazy rhythm, but only superficially so. More fundamentally, there's an unexpected depth and sanity to this life. She may be someone you recognize, or know, or are, and the same with her kids. Mostly, she's just good company (and the same with her kids). The four hours here — eight episodes out of 12 were offered for review — certifiably improve moods and outlooks. The reason is that Sam, at heart, is an optimist — not exactly a sunny optimist, and more of a cloudy-with-a-chance-of-meatballs optimist, but an optimist nonetheless.
These eight episodes, which Aldon also directed, are uniformly excellent, but the best of this batch is the sixth — "What is Jeopardy" (airing April 4) — and the eighth, "Easter" (April 18). In the latter, Imrie gets her richly deserved and unexpectedly moving third season close-up.
In "Jeopardy," Sam and Phil sputter out some question-answers to "Jeopardy," one of which relates to Nebuchadnezzar's dream. That's a foreshadow relating to the interpretation of Sam's dream — a recurrent one in which she has rough sex with her ex-husband. They are deeply disturbing to her and ruin her sleep, forcing her to come to terms with her nightmares.
Eventually she does, in a scene that reveals the source of her misery and also gives her closure (not to mention improved sleep). "Jeopardy" reinforces the core theme of "Better Things" — how lives are refracted through generations, or in this case, how a certain object means one thing for her daughter, Max, and entirely something else for Sam.
To an extent, "Better Things" is a snapshot of a single entire lifespan — Sam's. It's about who she once was (her daughters), who she is now (middle-aged and angsty), and who she'll end up becoming (grouchy Phil). This season's recurrent image is of Duke's pet rat on a wheel, as in life's circle. It's apt and not a little bleak.
"Better Things" is funny, but organically, and at times unintentionally so. When a production executive (Marsha Thomason) tells her, "Oh, you are so funny," Sam looks puzzled, as if the thought had never occurred to her. It will to you — often.
BOTTOM LINE With just eight episodes as evidence, this third season appears to be flawless.