Aaron Yap reviews Pamela Adlon’s Better Things, the semi-autobiographical exploration of Hollywood and parenthood co-written by Louis C.K.
There’s a terrific bit in the new Louis C.K. special where he admonishes “the way people talk about their mothers”. He recalls an after-match interview with a football player who scored a bunch of goals. “My mum died last year,” the player said, “but I know she’s watching from heaven tonight”. In the eyes of most other human beings, this would be a touching, heart-tugging moment. But of course, the irascible C.K. has a different, reliably curmudgeonly take: “Leave your mother alone. She’s dead. How DARE you? When are you done with your fucking kids?”
It’s this sentiment – the tremendously selfless, all-encompassing reach of motherhood – that Pamela Adlon’s Better Things gets. I’ve never been a parent, but having been a little turd (who’s arguably grown up to be a bigger turd), it’s not difficult to identify with the daily, draining toils of Adlon’s Sam Fox.
Co-created and written with C.K., Better Things is Adlon’s first, long-time-coming show as a lead. She’s an actress who, for a large part of her career, has been heard more than seen, lending her unmistakably husky voice to cartoons like Rugrats and King of the Hill. But her recent supporting parts on Californication and Louie have been proven she’s more than capable in front of the camera too. Her recurring appearances often end up being highlights of those respective shows.
Comparisons to Louie are inevitable. Better Things shares the latter’s semi-autobiographical nature, and a love for the random, the messy and the mundane. Characters doing regular-people things. Those fleeting, throwaway vignettes that don’t seem like much at the time but upon reflection, grow in memory and become essential in the larger picture. It’s less freewheeling and formally adventurous than Louie, but not any lesser for being so. Adlon tackles her subjects – solo mum life, hellraising daughters, showbiz bullshit, midlife crises – with an open, often thorny heart, and that’s captivating enough.
Every episode of the first season has something to offer, but for a taste of the show coming together into something special, make a beeline to the fourth, ‘Woman Is The Something Of The Something’. In a concise 23 minutes, it encapsulates everything funny and moving about the show while giving newcomers a clear sense of its tone, approach and themes. We come to understand and empathise with almost every facet of Sam Fox’s world.
The opening scene sees Sam dozing off in her car, outside a sports field, presumably waiting to pick up her kids. An elderly homeless lady knocks on her window, waking her up. She wants the empty bottles and cans littered inside the car. They have a chat about the relentlessness of parenting children. Sam tells the woman, “I’m tired all the time. I call it Mom-stein-Barr”. The woman then advises, “You can’t be a mama all the time, sometimes you gotta be a lady.” As their exchange continues, Sam, in a maternal, compassionate gesture, also offers the woman a jacket and a pair of shoes. It’s a rueful, gracefully observed scene, not only underscoring the thanklessness of a mother’s duties but also its utter lack of glamour. Sam is her own hobo, stealing power naps, surrounded by trash.
The episode also provides an engagingly meta peek into her work situation. It skewers Hollywood’s ridiculous beauty standards, and its difficulty in giving women over 40 substantial roles to play. During a brutally honest facelift consultation, Sam tells the doctor, “The left side of my face is melting, and my right eye is really heavy, like it’s been in a prize fight.” Running parallel is a subplot in which she’s considered for a sitcom pilot. The two male showrunners, unable to find the right actress, finally broach the idea of using Sam, as if plucking her from the bottom of a pile of forgotten has-beens.
“I used to jerk off to her,” one of them says. The casting agent asks, “Isn’t she like 60?”. They successfully pitch her to the network boss, reinforcing how funny she is and that her “everywoman” qualities will appeal to a wide demographic. But in a last minute reversal, the project draws the interest of the younger, better-known Rachel McAdams. The showrunners are stoked, and in a heartbeat, Sam is forgotten once again. The whole scenario is absurd in its fickleness, perfectly epitomising the industry’s obsession with image, age and celebrity.
Better Things isn’t that sort of show though. There’s too much going on in Sam’s life to be solely concerned with hurling satiric bile at Hollywood. Sam sees the upside. She’s now able to spend more time with her middle daughter, the androgynous Frankie (Hannah Alligood). “I rarely get a download from her. And when I do, she’s on a newer and bigger planet,” she says to Frankie’s teacher. She’s concerned that Frankie, who’s at ease discussing the less-than-saintly personal histories of respected figures like Martin Luther King and Gandhi, may be growing up too fast and learning more than her mother can keep up with.
The expression of relief that Sam lets out, at the realisation that she can attend Frankie’s class trip, is Better Things at its more sincere and joyous. Rather than preoccupy herself with Another Job, Sam soldiers on with the one that’s never done.
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