Better Things, Season 3
So I’m tempted to compare this to Louie for several reasons, but as I come away from Season 3 of Better Things, I have to say they feel like very different shows. Wait, what’s that? Some kind of news item about Louis CK? You want me to do what? No–this is a review of art, not people, and so why are you cutting me off? No I’m not doing that. That’s not my department. Stop yelling at me.
Pamela Adlon helped write Louie and played the main character’s unrequited love interest on his show. Louis CK in turn was working on her show, and I see his name credited in some episodes of this season but read that he’s off the Better Things gig in this Rolling Stone article and in Vanity Fair as well so there you have it.
What I can say is pacing is very similar between the two, and as writers they both effectively use autobiographical characters as confessional fountains of catharsis and comedy, especially around their strengths and weaknesses as parents. This offers rewards with both visceral dramatic impact and stand-up shock value, and it can be hard to watch at times but we come away convinced above all of the real, unflinching love both characters have for their children.
But here’s the thing–regardless of what you want me to think of anyone’s acts against nature and Metoo-itiveness–I’ve never considered Louis CK an actor. He’s a stand-up comedian and a writer, and every time he acts he seems out of his depth to me maybe half the time. You can tell me that’s just his style–he’s an awkward person around people and so that’s his method acting in live time and that’s what I’m seeing and I call bullshit. I know what awkward looks like, and I know what it’s like when someone is stepping back from the stage he’s set for himself and not quite feeling his way in and that latter thing is what I’m getting for enough of his time on screen that I start to feel I shouldn’t be watching after a while but I go on anyway (and that includes, by the way, that otherwise very interesting mini-series about the old bar, Horace and Pete, where he is challenged by very real dramatic situations and cast members and falls very short of keeping it real).
And while I miss some of that out of context surrealism I got more from the yang side of this former partnership (though one could argue that Pam is in many ways more masculine than CK), Pamela Adlon towers over him as a lead, and so the show works better, and cuts deeper, and we can move on from this comparison; provided I can trust you, dear reader, to insert whatever else it is that I’m supposed to be thinking and saying about the uncomfortable thing; and I know I can trust you to do that, dear reader; I know you’re really good at knowing what other people are supposed to think about things so we’ll try to move on though I feel a few more thoughts coming.
At least one of the above-linked articles lists Better Things as a feminist work. We’ll come back to that.
The main character, Sam, differs from Louie in taking sole responsibility of her children, versus he who splits the kids’ time with the mom, and pats himself on the back at least several times throughout his series for being involved at all. His sister compliments a meal he put together for her and the girls, and you know, I find it impossible to forget that he probably wrote the compliment into the script; and the sister goes on to mention that she didn’t think he was going to “show up for it,” meaning the kids. He also lets loose on an obnoxious stranger by saying that he is a “real man” for being involved with his kids, then asking what her contribution is.
Meanwhile, Sam takes twice the responsibility with stoicism. Well, she sighs in infinite exasperation, and yells at them quite a lot, but never does she come out and say to her kids that the dad is an absentee prick. Eventually her asshole brother speaks that out loud, which we could put under the same microscope as Louie’s narcissism speaking through his sister, but it didn’t rub me that way; maybe we’re back to the leading lady being a better actor again but it felt like someone needed to say that out loud by the time it happened and I believe Sam’s silence on the matter of the father is an honorable and protective act–she doesn’t want that relationship to infect the kids, even if the fact of a missing father is bound to.
Sam’s flaws are presented fearlessly, though that doesn’t make them entirely easy to swallow. She is a jealous and selfish friend, and speaks her mind even when it’s destructive all around. A glaring example of this happens during a girls’ get together at a married friend’s house named Lala (played by Judy Reyes). When Lala’s husband comes home early, the disappointment seems shared, yet Sam is the only one to speak up about it. And she goes further, declaring that the hubbie and his friend should just fuck off because they’re interfering with the female bonding of the night.
Here I’m going to provide another comparison–to my house. If I had a poker night planned around my wife’s absence (I wouldn’t) and she came home with a friend demanding nothing more than a quick kiss, a few quips about the smell of cigar smoke and how drunk some people were, she would have my undivided attention, to the point of my following her to our room to make sure she wasn’t annoyed and maybe kicking everyone out if she was. If any one of my friends suggested that she leave, I, and anyone up to date of the current climate of feminism in America, would be appalled.
But Sam is asking just that–that the hubbie go somewhere else so they can finish their night. I admit the hubbie is a bummer, and that he wrecked the mood of the evening for these ladies, but he was gracious in disappearing thereafter and Sam can’t let go of what fun they were having before he came crashing into the magic of the night and Lala started putting food away.
And this show is deeply invested in portraying REALITY at expense of neatly laid out morals and life lessons and shit like that so I’m not proposing that Pam Adlon thinks kicking him back out was a reasonable thing to ask, but I am proposing that we look at how calling this a feminist show takes my attention temporarily away from a simple and convincing portrayal of clashing perspectives in male, female, single and married relations.
Stop yelling at me.
I come away admiring and maybe even liking Sam, but above all seeing a woman so devoted to looking out for her children that she’s left searching, sometimes desperately for any kind of cutaway or outlet for herself, and having found this in the girls’ night scenario she was understandably incensed at losing it with the simple fact of a male walk-on part.
Her maternal devotion and helplessness are best demonstrated by a scene at the end of the season. When her middle child, Frankie, moves out of the house, we think temporarily, at maybe 15 years of age and without a word of explanation, she finally comes around just for a bath: “I’m not staying,” she keeps saying, which has to be a knife in the gut. When the question of whether or not that bath will be allowed by Sam, despite that she’s not staying we see Sam at her most vulnerable, with a perfectly gut-wrenching near-whisper of surrender implying all the things she might have said that would jeopardize her chance to give to her child in the one way she’s been offered the opportunity: “Of course.”
I offer further praise to this show for Adlon’s characters surprising us in ways I wish more characters in my life would–people we’ve written off can show up in ways we wouldn’t expect. There are many examples of this I would have to rewatch to find examples for, apart from the brother telling Sam’s kids their dad sucks; but that mother character, Sam’s mom; whatever her name is, Phillis I think–despite the onset of some kind of mental disability, and the show taking several fair shots at making her sympathetic by way of background stories and moments of near humanity–that woman is a real cunt.
Thanks for reading.