Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is Still One of the Best

I’m not sure there’s any show that understands the episodic nature of life as well as Pamela Adlon’s brilliant “Better Things.” The FX critical darling returns for its fourth season this week and the first few episodes employ the structure that this show has increasingly displayed with each year in which sometimes minor events have remarkable, genuine cumulative power in terms of character depth and storytelling. One could watch “Better Things” and step away thinking not much happens. It’s not a typical sitcom that sets up a problem before the first commercial break and solves that problem before the credits. It’s a more a series of interactions, conversations, and events. Some days can be as crazy as slamming a finger in a car door, and others can be as simple as rearranging a bedroom. This is daily life. And through these beautiful moments, Adlon finds a much deeper and more resonant truth about both the coming-of-age stories of youth and the pitfalls of being middle-aged in 2020.

Here’s where a review would typically get into plot. Again, that’s not really much of a thing here. We spend time with Sam (Adlon) and her three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward), who are all wonderfully different and yet believable as members of the same family. The writing on this show is so smart in that the characters don’t all sound like mouthpieces from the same writing team as happens on most mediocre sitcoms. They stand apart. It helps that Madison, Alligood, and Edward have gotten better every single year, and are at their best here, completely genuine and fun to watch. When this show eventually ends, I’ll miss these three with their believable flaws and innate goodness.

Of course, there are interludes of things that could be called sitcomish like the aforementioned car door or Sam’s adventures trying to get work in Hollywood, but even these feel believable because Adlon and her team have invested so much in these characters over the years. I’m increasingly drawn to comedies that don’t hit their punchlines, like “Barry,” “Atlanta,” or one of the pioneers in genre-busting, “Louie,” which remains a clear influence on this program despite its creator no longer being involved. There’s so much blatant desperation in comedy—the need for you to laugh is so strong that they still put tracks on some of them to make sure you know when to do so—but there’s never that sense at all in “Better Things.”

There’s a theory that TV and film needs to always be about people with lives more interesting than our own. What Pamela Adlon understands is that there’s equal value in presenting people as truthfully as possible, and thereby allowing us to see our own interesting lives reflected.

Four episodes screened for review.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also the Editor of Magill's Cinema Annual, a writer for The New York Times, Vulture, The AV Club, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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