Better Things Season Five | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, November 28th, 2023  

Better Things (Season Five)

FX, February 28, 2022

Feb 28, 2022 Photography by Pamela Littkey/FX Web Exclusive
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The rise of more women showrunners in recent years has meant an uptick of shows told from women’s perspectives and written about our lives in all their verisimilitude. While fantastical tales of our triumphs, true crimes and thrillers have been bracing and have much to impart, it is Pamela Adlon’s verité-style FX show, Better Things, that holds the truest mirror to our lives as women, mothers and daughters.

An Emmy Award-winning creator, and the show’s writer, director, producer and actor, Adlon, is truly in a league of her own. As Sam Fox, a single mother and working actor raising three daughters while also supporting her expat mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), Adlon excels at mining her own experiences and putting them under the microscope, in plotlines that mainstream television largely ignores. Aspects of motherhood that are not celebrated: the messiness of aspiring for a work-family life balance, menopause and other bodily functions are all feature regularly on her show.

Better Things was a breath of fresh air when it premiered back in 2016 and has gone from strength to strength over four seasons, winning a Critics Choice Award and a Peabody Award.

The show’s sharp observations on family, female friendships, aging and dating were authentic and insightful from the beginning. Particularly poignant was an episode in Season 3 where Fox tries to put on a pair of new jeans that won‘t pull up past her thighs. It’s not played for laughs, neither is it an indictment, just acknowledgement that one day, we get up, and our clothes don’t fit us in the same way. Everywhere we look, we’re told tummies should be flat no matter how many babies, wrinkles and saggy skin need to be Botox-ed away, the earlier the better. Here was a show with a lead actor that looked her age—that in itself, was revolutionary.

This much-awaited final season continues to deliver the goods. Thematically, it deals with the trials that most women in their late 40s and 50s face—the looming specter of an empty nest, re-assessing finances and reflecting on what the next stage in life will look like. Sam seeks alternatives to be creatively satisfied in a career fixated on youth and looks. Last season, she traded the family minivan—emblematic of school runs, playdates and dance recitals, an era where parents rarely have time to think—for a two-seater El Camino truck, signaling a new phase was afoot.

The whole season is a meditation on time and life’s changing seasons. Death and the departed are a comforting part of the continuum for Sam. She is more introspective than ever and repeatedly drives her truck past her old home, as she recalls childhood memories. In the first episode Sam and her brother, Marion (Kevin Pollak) also find out some startling results to their genealogy search. Phil who declines to go, scoffs: “There is nothing to learn from the dead.”

When we first meet Max (Mikey Madison), the eldest, she’s an angsty teen whose every encounter with her mother is like pulling teeth. In five seasons, Max, has graduated high school, gone to college, dropped out, and at a loose end. All grown up, Max is her mother’s daughter, confident and empathetic but still finding her way. When Sam takes a job in San Francisco, Max takes the reins at home. Literally dealing with all the shit—she cleans up after her dogs and sisters. When Sam calls home to check in, Max says: “This mom-shit is not for pussies,” and in the same breath she adds that she’s actually grateful for the experience.

As a woman, Max also comes to terms with adult decisions, which she doesn’t share with her mother, but we see this affects her in ways that she herself can’t quite articulate. She questions who she wants to be. And is on the cusp of figuring out how to forge her way independently.

Middle child Frankie (Hannah Riley) has graduated high school early and despite having the grades and acumen she’s decided to stay and work in the local grocery store instead of heading to college—a decision that Sam supports. Strong-willed and the most outspoken, Frankie’s consistently been the toughest on Sam. She continues to call her mother out on all manner of perceived transgressions—from ignorance of the finer points of feminist history, to race relations, gender pronouns or simply her lack of exercise. Frankie is as scathing and unapologetic as ever. But as is Sam’s way, rather than chide her or minimize her experience, she chooses to learn from Frankie.

The baby of the family, Duke (Olivia Edward) was always her mother’s most fervent cheerleader. Now firmly in the throes of pubescence — she too lashes out at her mother. She’s disinterested in school and her once, best friend. Max catches her secretly vaping and suspects she’s also medicating with marijuana. Duke neglects what little responsibilities she has and is plagued by a negative self-image.

The central love affair in Better Things is arguably the one between Sam and her mother. Phil’s increasing cognitive decline has been a key plot point from the start. When we’re first introduced to her in Season 1, she is a hoarder with stacks of boxes and ephemera piled high in her living room. Now, Phil is finally discarding her old things. She tells Sam, “You keep something in a box for so long, it becomes a box.” But it is Sam that is unable to let go — she instructs Phil to not throw anything until she’s had the chance to go through it.

The throughline for all these characters remains truthful, but the show’s pacing this season is uneven. Granted, Better Things has never adhered strictly to linear narratives or the traditional arc of a 30-minute episodic. There’s more of an emphasis on moments and feelings over plot. In past seasons, episodes have unfolded like dream sequences with great results. Adlon also relishes the awkwardness of situations—she will often say lines over and over again, and let an uncomfortable moment linger on longer for effect. To “Stink up the room like a fart” is how Adlon once described it. But one too many stink bombs, digressions and a lack of signposting obfuscates from whatever point she might have been trying to make.

The pandemic makes its presence felt but is never purposefully mentioned. As a result, there’s more than one extended kitchen scene that plays out for longer than it needs to. Several Zoom-centered scenes—a memorial for a recently departed relative presided by a rabbi, and an exchange with Phil’s granddaughters. Like real life Zoom video calls, these interactions can come across flat.

Similarly, some of the sharp dialogue seems blunted here. In Episode 2 when the girls go for dinner at Phil’s—there is a quarrel brewing as Phil “cockblocks” Sam’s hours-long prepared borscht with her quick-fry chicken wings. Phil is headstrong and always done as she pleases—which is what we love about her character—but here she goes too far. Despite Sam’s protestations, she obstinately shows her granddaughters old wedding photos of Sam and her ex-husband. Goaded by Max and Frankie, an upset Sam snaps, “That’s my trauma!” before taking her bowl of borscht and going home.

It’s an important scene for a myriad of reasons. It exposes fault lines in the family dynamics, hints at Phil’s increasing inability to read the room, and her daughter, as a sign of her increasing dementia. Sam’s flashback also reveals a parallel of how she had once belittled her dad the way Frankie now berates her. Still, the scene unfolds clumsily with too many weird pauses.

But, we watch television as much to escape our realities as to see it reflected back at us, and while this final season seems to have its own wonky internal rhythm, there’s been no scene or situation that hasn’t paralleled our lives in some acute way—and that, in Adlon’s able hands has been a delight to watch. It was more than a decade ago that I was bowled over by her spunky portrayal of Marcy Runkle on Californication. For me, she stole the show. I wanted to see more of her. We got that, and more, with Better Things. With the ending of this adventure, I am so excited with the prospect of what Adlon will get up to next. (

Author rating: 7.5/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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