Okay, Better Things is not Stranger Things. I was looking for the latter and stumbled upon the former. I watched about 30 seconds and thought Season 2 was kinda offbeat, then it clicked and I put it on pause while I looked it up on Wikipedia.
‘An actor with three daughters struggles with the demands of life’: Oh dear God, that sounds so anal and so LA. Regardless, I had started so I might as well give it five more minutes.
An hour later I am well into Season 1 and wanting more so I cancel the rest of my day, pull the blinds, pour a beer, make several toasted cheese sandwiches, steam a bowl of peas and keep on watching. I laugh a little, cry a little, am thoroughly taken by the razor sharp writing and am in awe of Pamela Adlon.
Adlon is a writer, director, voiceover artist and prolific character actor whose turns include the voice of Bobby Hill (King Of The Hill), playing Marcy Runkle in Californication and Pamela in Louie.
Now here’s where it gets messy. Adlon is a cohort of recently disgraced impresario Louis CK and was a regular cast member, writer and producer on the former’s critically acclaimed comedy/drama Louie (2010-2015). Better Things season 1 and 2 was made in collaboration with CK’s production company and he has a large hand in the show with co-writing and production credits (that’s all changed now of course).
As for CK’s penchant for masturbating in front of women, we get a few clues to his mindset in Better Things when Adlon’s character Sam, a former teen star, reluctantly gives a lift to a young male actor she is playing ‘mother’ to in a sitcom pilot (Season 1, Episode 7).
He tells her she is hot, then informs her that she is making him crazy and that he has a pounding boner and needs to release it from his pants. She unceremoniously throws him from the car.
It happens again when a boyfriend is horny and needs to hear her voice over the phone to help him along while he tugs the master. She looks bored and it brings to mind a recent conversation with a female friend who reeled off a series of stories about numerous guys she thought were ‘just friends’ who surprised one and all when they whipped out their boners and presented them as if they were the ultimate compliment.
“How do you react?” I ask. “Mostly I just laugh,” she replies, adding: “It’s actually pretty boring and way tiresome, especially when they want you to touch them”.
Anyways, back to Sam Fox, who is one hell of a mother. Gentle, kind, accepting, non-judgmental, calm and considered. Also devoutly open minded and worldly. She is guiding her girls into life, not haranguing them into some twisted and conformist version of what she thinks they should be – a trap too many parents fall into.
That’s not to say she’ll take shit from her girls. She has her limits and once those lines are crossed, God help one and all. She is a master in the art of withering looks and the biting put down.
Sam isn’t perfect but she takes on life with wit, verve and nous. She is unflinchingly straightforward, and yes… she has a little of the Larry David about her which makes for some uncomfortable moments and here I am thinking Episode 2, Season 2 when she dumps a boyfriend.
Stripping away all the artifice, she tells him that he is boring and “the only reason I suck your cock is because you make my vagina dry and I don’t want you in there when it’s dry.” Needy and/or self-centred men are a frequent target, and on this subject she holds nothing back.
As excellent as Pamela is, one person does not a series make and like all successful shows there is a fine supporting cast. The girls who play her daughters all possess a certain kind of magic, but it’s veteran British actress Celia Imrie as Sam’s mother who stands out.
Living next door, eccentric as all fuck and probably suffering early onset Alzheimer’s, Imrie lights up the screen every time she walks into the frame. She also drops the kind of lines that strip paint off the walls, both hilarious and cringemaking at the same time. Late in Season 2, the plight of the aging parent is thoroughly examined with insight and candour.
I started out thinking that the LA actor’s stuff would be a bit anal but I stand corrected. Adlon has a fair bit to say about the lot of a jobbing actor and well here it is – like any job, there are a few good bits and a lot of shite. Working life is working life no matter the profession.
From camera set up through editing, this is one deftly crafted show and special mention must be made of the music. John Lennon’s ‘Mother’ opens the show, which is littered with interesting songs, many of which are now on my playlist. Honest and humane, Better Things is grand.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.