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‘Better Things’ review: Pamela Adlon shines in ‘Louie’-style FX show

Pamela Adlon and Olivia Edward (daughter of psychic

Pamela Adlon and Olivia Edward (daughter of psychic medium John Edward) play mother and daughter in "Better Things" on FX. Credit: FX / Colleen Hayes

THE SERIES “Better Things”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Thursday night at 10 on FX


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) is a veteran Hollywood TV star still living off the residuals of an old sitcom, now looking for bit parts while raising three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward). Her difficult, slightly dotty mother, Phil — played by esteemed veteran British actress Celia Imrie — lives across the street.

And there is a Long Island tie here, too: Olivia Edward, daughter of famed psychic medium John Edward, lives in Huntington.

MY SAY “Better Things” is for that TV fan undergoing “Louie” withdrawal symptoms, which are likely to continue for some time because Louis C.K. (after all) isn’t exactly in a rush to get back to “Louie.” This occupies that same not-quite-comedy-or-drama space that “Louie” — also obstinately against labels — occupied. In another similarity, both are about devoted parents and seasoned show-business professionals who endure the petty indignities of the roles. They are also real people striving in an artificial world, puzzled by the incongruity, and bleakly aware there’s no escaping it. They are who they are, for better or worse. There’s no escaping that either.

C.K. wrote the first three episodes and directed the pilot — maybe another reason for the familiarity here — but get beyond all this and there is something, or someone, completely original, too. That’s Adlon herself. She’s a highly regarded voice-over actress, and like most voice-over stars, highly regarded or otherwise, has often been heard, seldom seen over a long career. She and C.K. go back at least a decade, to his short-lived HBO show, “Lucky Louie,” in which she co-starred, followed by the memorable arc as Louie’s girlfriend, Pamela, in the fourth and fifth seasons of the FX series.

She’s a terrific and effortlessly funny actress who establishes vivid characters with vivid lives. But Sam Fox obviously required a bigger reach, and Adlon accomplishes that here. The idea is to find the emotional center of Sam, not just the superficial comic one. Who is she? Why is she here? And why is motherhood so maddening and vitally important at the same time, and how are the mistakes made also the mistakes that become a parent’s legacy? Adlon’s Sam struggles with these questions, and the result is a deeper, more emotionally engaged counterpart to Louie. Therein lies the biggest difference of all.

BOTTOM LINE Pamela Adlon finally gets her deserved close-up and doesn’t squander the chance.


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