On Better Things Season 3 Episode 1, “Chicago,” Sam drops Max off at college and returns home to the usual chaos.
Perhaps, now that critics can be certain Better Things star-director-writer-producer Pamela Adlon is a creative force unto herself, we won’t have to hear the collective sigh of relief that Better Things Season 3 may be the best yet. The show’s co-creator, and self-admitted sexual harasser, Louis C.K. doesn’t deserve any more of our attention.
Hey, Louis C.K. may be a douche, but he’s a funny douche who co-wrote the first 20 episodes of the FX series with Adlon. Wouldn’t it suck if his bad behavior dragged her down as well?
Worse yet, what if she’s just not talented enough to go it alone? Shame on anyone who would believe that for a second.
Since Better Things premiered in 2016, Adlon, who plays single mom and mildly famous actress Sam Fox, has been the heart and soul of the series. It helps that when it comes to Better Things, life imitates art (Adlon’s life).
Sam is a woman who men often prove to be more trouble than their worth: her late father, her ex-husband, her brother, and most — if not all — the men she dates. So Louis C.K. placed Adlon in our collective pop culture consciousness (for those who aren’t fans of King of the Hill).
But when it comes do the day-to-day business of showing up and getting it done, just like Sam, it is Adlon, not C.K. who is the reliable parent of the show they conceived together.
“Chicago” highlights all of the things we love about Sam, and the ups and downs of being a caretaker. When it comes to preparing her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), for life on her own, Sam knows what’s important: stocking up on lots of birth control, feminine hygiene products, Ramen noodles, and every conceivable OTC medication a twentysomething would never have on hand if they got sick.
Sam continues to be the cool mom who everyone wishes they had growing up. Nothing about her is fake or rehearsed, and whatever comes out of her mouth is wise and smart — not always kind — but real. Sam’s someone who not only had to grow up early but started out in life as an old soul.
It is a bit surprising to see Max, who Sam refers to as a “dum-dum,” on Better Things Season 2 Episode 10, “Graduation,” actually going to college. There are moments when we see some growth in Max — self-awareness that was previously lacking.
Max begins to voice her fears about the big, bad city to her mother, but the conversation is aborted by the mad rush to score the best bed In the dorm. What 18-year-old is really prepared to enter the “real world,” and it is their hubris that quickly outweighs the momentary crushing homesickness.
On the way back home, Sam must suffer the humiliation of explaining to a female TSA agent that she’s wearing the equivalent of an adult diaper because of a heavy perimenopausal period.
Sam doesn’t catch the slightest break from the airport employee despite her attempt to infuse self-deprecating humor into a horrible, awkward, and embarrassing situation.
The rest of the episode is a reminder that Sam is always present for those who rely on her whether they want to or not. Frankie (Hannah Alligood) slacks on homework. Instead of Sam guilt tripping her daughter by revealing her harrowing plane ride which could have had her going down in a ball of flames with a cocktail clutched in her hand, Sam concedes.
Does she do this because she’s down one daughter and realizes moments like this will grow fewer and far between? Does she do it because she wants to shelter her daughters from the ugly inevitabilities in life such as death for as long as possible? Is it just because that’s what moms do — put their kids’ needs above their own?
It doesn’t really matter. Even in the midst of every conceivable chaos — and even some inconceivable ones — Sam is everyone’s flawed but unflinching (maybe the occasional twitch) touchstone.
What did you think of this episode of Better Things? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Better Things airs Thursdays at 10/9c on FX.
Want more from Tell-Tale TV? Subscribe to our newsletter here!