Nov 11, 2016

TV Retrospective: "Better Things" - Season 1

The subject of motherhood on TV tends to get filtered through the sitcom model. This includes your typical laugh tracks and conventional plots wrapped up in 30 minutes or less. While Better Things is very much a contained story type of series, Louie collaborator Pamela Adlon's foray into free form comedy is anything but familiar; at least to TV. The story follows her journey as a single mother trying to raise each of them equally while facing her own frustrations. The drama may be depressing and the comedy a little awkward, but Adlon manages to strike a wonderful balance between it all by creating one of the most candid, vulnerable, and exciting mothers on TV this year. Better Things is one of the year's best series, and one of the strongest female casts of TV in 2016 period.
Over the past few decades, there have been few endearing cantankerous women as Adlon. While she may best be remembered as Bobby Hill on King of the Hill, she has made a career out of being cranky and dark. Her antagonism fueled the better parts of Louie and solidified her as one of the underrated female writers. In the modern landscape when TV has ventured into far more exciting territory, Adlon has finally gotten a shot to make her own show as a lead. In this case, it is a predominantly female-lead show about motherhood and how terrible it is to raise hormonal teenagers. It isn't a quaint picture, but one with constant crass imagery and arguments that feel real to life. Adlon's yelling isn't obnoxious, but integral to her character. Even during the show's brief looks outside of the children's lives, there is a certain tie to motherhood that is inescapable. It is a full time job, and one that almost sucks up her entire identity.

Yet the show is one of the most optimistic, heartwarming shows on TV. Even with the various struggles that each character faces, there's a sense of family that centers them. There's countless arguments about boyfriends and disobedience that could lead to broken windows. Even with the perpetual rebellion fueling each episode, there's a sense of respect for mothers that seems underrated. Adlon doesn't give audiences the Hollywood ending, but still manages to give some reconciliation for every small scuffle. It also features the growth of her relationship to her own mother, who lives across the street and is a bit aloof. As the show grows, the emotional core does. Soon it isn't just a story of Adlon's mother figure struggling, but the general problems women face as they age and have to raise the next generation.
Better Things had the poignant sporadic nature of vintage Louie. While the show never became as dreamlike and yet as vulgar, it still manages to show women in a less than sympathetic light. The opening credits is a heartwarming montage of women - presumably the central cast - growing up through the years as the lyrics "Mother you had me, but I never had you." plays lovingly. It's a thought that goes through every episode as Adlon has her own epiphanies about her terrible childhood and how she needs to respect her mother more. It's lovingly tragic, but Adlon manages to make it feel real and artful, ending the season with the family driving as Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed." It may have seemed out of place in an earlier episode, but manages to summarize the struggles nicely here. No matter how mundane they seem, they are no match for family bond.
Better Things is a show that continues to solidify FX as the home for an ambitious new future of comedy. Along with the phenomenal Atlanta and Baskets, the channel is looking to produce auteur TV that is striking and singular. Adlon is a welcomed voice to that model, and one can only hope that her balance of acidity and heart continue to be brought for many more seasons, possibly hundred of more episodes. Whatever the case may be, this is a show centered around women that is emotionally effective and equally hilarious. One can only hope that it inspires a new genre for TV mothers that help to redefine how we see women in older age.

OVERALL RATING: 4 out of 5 

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