'Better Things' gets even better in its second season

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Pamela Adlon in “Better Things.” (Photo: FX)

Pamela Adlon’s unique half-hour show, Better Things — not quite a sitcom, with lots of drama and some absurdity — is even better in its second season. She plays Sam, single mom of three living in Los Angeles, eking out a living on the fringes of show business. But the show isn’t much about her work, really — it’s about her outer life (the drudgery and occasional pleasures of single parenthood) and her inner life (her loneliness, her frustration, her dreams, her anger). She co-created the show with Louis C.K., and his name pops up regularly as a producer and sometime co-writer, but Adlon, who directed all 10 episodes of this new season, has pretty much made the show her own machine — something to tinker with and come closer to perfecting.

In the new season, Sam is still struggling not to throttle her three kids — played with all the right rough edges by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward — while enduring bad dates and, even more dismaying, meeting a guy she actually likes — a prospect that sends her into such a tizzy that she feels ill. The second episode’s bad date features a nothing dude whose speech patterns and pauses are strongly reminiscent of Louis C.K.’s (he co-wrote the episode), and provides Adlon with the opportunity to deliver a rousing parking-lot speech to the guy about his thoughtlessness, his neediness, and his shortcomings as a lover and, more generally, as a human being. A viewer may cheer her on even as one is aware that that’s exactly the congratulatory button that’s being pushed, and that Louis C.K. has written himself speeches in this mode for his own show.

Better Things gets better — truer and deeper — when Sam is taken by surprise (as when her ex-husband shows up unexpectedly for dinner, or a pet dies) or when she’s jolted out of her self-absorption by a parental obligation that yields a small revelation for her. Adlon is very good at depicting Sam in mid-mixed emotions; she has become a better actor, relying on more than just the poker-faced sarcasm that she does so well. I like the way the show has been opened up in the new season — Sam goes on trips; we see her in different contexts — and each episode is studded with little details that please or puzzle. (I like the young woman who thinks Bing Crosby is Bill Cosby, and I’d love to talk to Adlon about what it is she likes about the writer-humorist and Nora Ephron ex-husband Dan Greenburg.) If you haven’t watched Better Things and, like me, are suspicious of people telling you about a sitcom in which laughs aren’t the most important element, I can understand your wariness, but give Better Things a shot. Regular viewers: enjoy.

Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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