It’s difficult to imagine what “Better Things” would be like if Louis CK had never left. The heartbreaking, uplifting, tearjerking FX dramedy, co-created by CK and director/star Pamela Adlon, spent its first two seasons under their joint creative supervision; from season three onward, after CK copped to his numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, FX severed ties with CK and it was Adlon’s show through and through.
And what a show it became—more sensitive, personal, highly attuned to Adlon’s anxieties as a middle-aged mother of daughters, a working actress long past the expiration date most women have in Hollywood. It feels like the kind of creative playground few creators get to indulge in, and we as viewers got to see her grow, change, and evolve as a director and star along the way. Now, with its fifth and final season, it’s finally time to say goodbye, and what a sendoff it is.
From its opening minutes, season five locks in on its preoccupation with life, legacy, and the cosmic importance of the mundane, taking us through Sam Fox’s (Adlon) morning routine. She checks her blood pressure, starts laundry, feeds her goldfish, all to the tune of Eric Idle crooning the “Galaxy Song” from “Meaning of Life”—itself an ode to our individual insignificance in the face of the vastness of the universe. (We’ll hear another Python song by the time the series is through, but that’s a delightful surprise I daren’t spoil.)
It’s a tension that Sam’s feeling more acutely than ever. Her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison) is already out of the house and living her own life; middle child Frankie (Hannah Riley), still figuring out their gender identity, scoffs whenever Sam slips into gendered terms; youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) is finally entering adolescence and experiencing the crisis of purpose all young people experience at that age. And all of them are dealing with their crises by withdrawing from their mother all teens do, leaving Sam to deal with the specter of her uniquely-designed LA home—with its dozens of portraits lining the staircase—becoming an empty nest.
Her contemporaries and elders aren’t much help, either: her mother Phil (Celia Imrie), beginning to accept that she’s in her final years, begins to detach herself from her many possessions (“It’s all ephemera,” she says wistfully). Her brother, the ever-pragmatic Marion (Kevin Pollak), sees little use in Sam dragging him to see a genealogist so they can trace back their family history. “My people come from laborers and hardworking survivors!” Sam cries, desperately trying to envision herself within a continuity that can give her a sense of purpose. Add to that a hectic work life for a working actress in her fifties (which includes a claustrophobic four-hour costume fitting, complete with hoop skirts, for a period piece, and a tense guest directing spot on a Black multi-cam sitcom), and Sam is beset on all sides with the ever-creeping sense that life is leaving her behind.
But amid all these big questions of continuity and legacy, Adlon recognizes the way little personal moments can punch through the existential fog and give you purpose. Her camera lingers on the food she meticulously prepares, from homemade margs to borscht; a lost iPhone leads to a momentary flirtation with a hot TaskRabbit (“young dick, get out of my mind…” she sings to herself afterwards). Even a morning run up and down the Cove Avenue stairway gains unexpected poignance when she shares a moment of grief, then laughter, with a crying man sitting on the Mattachine Steps. “Better Things” understands the agony and joy of these tiny chapters—the “ephemera” Phil so quickly wants to toss aside—and plays them for all their under-appreciated importance.
Adlon remains one of TV’s most fascinating performers, and Sam one of its most compelling protagonists—she can burst with righteous fury one minute and overflow with maternal nurturing the next. No matter what life throws at her, she feels the need to diffuse the tension with a goofy, low-throated cackle. Sam’s such a social sponge, best suited for when she’s surrounded by people to take care of and entertain; it’s fitting that “Better Things” spends its final season forcing her to reckon with what happens when those people move on without her. Phil, along with Sam’s close friends Sunny (Alysia Reiner) and Rich (a soulful Diedrich Bader), face the prospect of getting back together with past loves—decisions that carry risk but also the promise of meaningful happiness.
But for all its ruminations, “Better Things” never forgets to be funny, suffusing even tearjerking moments with a sly, droll warmth that cuts through the waterworks. That’s most evident in Sam’s inner circle, especially the kids: Max faces a major life decision without her mom for the first time, culminating in her drunkenly grabbing Sam’s face and sobbing that she loves her mom so much that she would kill herself if she died. Rich, who helped Max behind Sam’s back, explains to the latter that Max had been “eating banana sandwiches ... with mayonnaise.” Sam takes perverse pleasure in tattling on a rude receptionist (Lennon Parham) to her doctor.
“Change like this is a chosen change,” Sam says to her family in the show’s final hours, a trip to London that ends up becoming a transitional period for the family unit as a whole. And it’s that change that “Better Things” has depicted so lovingly over the course of five brief, beautiful seasons—an ode to the joys and difficulties of motherhood, and the terrifying but enticing prospect of what comes after that job is done. Sam has spent so long defining herself by that label ("I've always been the mom of three daughters—who would I be then?" she admits to Frankie while trying to figure out their pronouns), she doesn’t know what to do without that emotional anchor. “Better Things” fittingly closes its doors before we get to see what life has in store for Sam next, and that’s for the best. After all, Adlon’s spent half a decade showing us what’s truly important: living in the moment with those you love. If you do that, you can carry those memories through whatever changes life throws at you. And I’ll be carrying “Better Things” with me for a long time.
All of season five screened for review. The final season of "Better Things" premieres on Hulu on February 28th.