Hit or Sh**: FX’s BETTER THINGS
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
Stepping up to the semi-autobiographical dark comedy plate is Pamela Adlon, a name you may not recognize, but you’re definitely familiar with. Although most easily recognized for her role on LOUIE as Louie’s unrequited romantic interest, and his onscreen wife in LUCKY LOUIE, she has an avalanche of voice acting credits including Bobby on KING OF THE HILL, Spinelli from RECESS, and frickin’ Pajama Sam. BETTER THINGS capitalizes on both the interesting and mundane aspects of Adlon’s life, from her voice acting career, her dealings with ex-husbands and lovers, her tumultuous life as a mother, and her efforts to remain a functional human being in spite of all this. Louis C.K.’s guiding hand is strong in the pilot, but is that enough for this show to stand out in a now thoroughly saturated genre, even enough to compete with LOUIE itself?
FX and Pig Newton Inc. present PAJAMAS: a semi-autobiographical account of Samuel’s journey toward his own identity with the help of a washed-up Pajama Man
Adlon separates her show from its genre through the sheer virtue of most audiences not knowing a whole lot about her. Compare this to THE REAL ROB, or the upcoming KEVIN CAN WAIT. BETTER THINGS falls more on the side of CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, with its focus on someone with a prolific career and an interesting worldview that isn’t a household name. We feel that we’re getting to know them for the first time rather than sitting through some half-assed attempt at auteurship, apology, generally trying to seem “deep,” or explaining themselves. Even LOUIE, despite C.K.’s recognizable presence as a stand-up comedian rather than a voice actor or writer, has such a unique voice and vision that it excuses the occasionally navel-gazing of the show. In other words, he has something to say other than “Hey, look at me!” The Adlon/David/C.K. approach, to me, is inherently more interesting and reeks much less of self-indulgence.
BETTER THINGS opens strong, with Pam sitting dejected on a mall bench while her young daughter sobs openly next to her. The long take is crushing and hilarious at the same time, and Pam’s snappy monologue in response to a judging stranger speaks to the heart of all troubled, single mothers everywhere. In fact, Adlon’s interactions with her three daughters are really the heart of this show. Not since BOB’S BURGERS have I seen a more realistic representation of the unbridled craziness of children, teenagers, and their parents. From teenage Max’s hissy fit over her mother refusing to buy her weed (“Don’t you want me to have good nugs?”), to thirteen-year-old Frankie’s offhand suggestion that she chop off her own clitoris as a political statement, these characters are clearly written by someone who’s been through the ringer with their kids. In other words, the character writing here is spot on.
Stylistically, C.K.’s influence is abundantly clear. He not only acts as co-creator and executive producer, he edited and co-wrote the pilot. I hate to compare the show so heavily to LOUIE, but they are so similar that BETTER THINGS could almost be considered a spinoff. The writing and editing specifically scream LOUIE, in that they’re really, really, really good. However… BETTER THINGS never quite owns itself the way LOUIE does. It just barely dips its toes into surrealism without going all the way. It confronts the emotional reality of trying to be a good single mom while maintaining an unconventional career, but doesn’t go far enough to make you want to cancel your evening plans and take a cold shower like LOUIE does. It doesn’t seem to have its own voice other than “LOUIE with its teeth pulled out”…yet.
The BETTER THINGS Writers’ Room, Probably
After such a strong beginning, the abrupt ending of the pilot left me guessing. The entire episode, while funny, lacked direction other than “Pam does stuff and gets kind of exasperated.” It falls somewhere between a pilot and a series of vignettes, with the feeling of trying to figure itself out as it goes along. I think this sums up this show perfectly. BETTER THINGS is on a journey to find itself as much as its main character is. If C.K. can gradually step away over the course of this season and allow Adlon to tell her own story, this will make an excellent sister show to LOUIE while adding a much-needed female presence to a predominantly male genre. For now, it remains to be seen if this bike can ride without its middle-aged, ginger training wheels.
Verdict: Sh** Probation
BETTER THINGS airs on Thursdays on FX