UPROXX TV writer Alan Sepinwall praises “Better Things” — Pamela Adlon‘s marvelous comedy about motherhood — while coming to grips with Louis CK‘s significant role on the show.
“White Rock,” last week’s episode of Better Things, was fantastic. As Pamela Adlon’s Sam took her daughters to Canada to visit her aunt and uncle in a small beach community, it was, in no particular order, a travelogue, a mystery, a tragedy, a ghost story, and a (very) dysfunctional family comedy. Adlon’s direction (working in tandem with director of photography Michael Alden Lloyd) was so gorgeous, I was tempted to watch the whole thing a second time with the sound off, just so I could look at it all again.
It was my favorite episode of the entire series, and one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.
It was also written by Louis CK.
A week ago, I decided it didn’t feel appropriate to write a laudatory review of an episode credited to a man who earlier in the day had been exposed by The New York Times as a serial harasser of women. “White Rock” felt, like a lot of Better Things, very specific to Adlon’s life and worldview, and she had a shared story credit on it, but the script itself was still attributed to CK, and on that day, it felt like there was no way I could contort myself to sing the episode’s praises without it either seeming in terrible taste, or filled with so many qualifiers about separating CK the writer from CK the man as to be unreadable.
I had heard these rumors before — if you cover TV and/or comedy, it was all but impossible to not hear them — but until there were names attached to the accusations, it became too easy for me to brush them aside and hope they weren’t true. I loved too much about CK’s work — particularly the empathetic and honest quality of his writing that seemed wildly at odds with a man who could do what CK would later admit that he did — and didn’t want to believe him capable of this. The rumors didn’t stop me from lavishing praise on Louie or Horace and Pete — both of which deserved it, even if I have no interest in rewatching either for a very long time, if not ever — from moderating a FYC panel discussion with CK and Adlon, or otherwise holding CK up as one of the most gifted and important TV auteurs of our age. (If Louie didn’t directly inspire Girls or Atlanta or Master of None or even the CK-produced One Mississippi, its existence and critical success made shows like that, and many others, more likely to be greenlit in its wake.)
I’m not proud of a lot of that, though my mortification is a pretty small and insignificant piece of collateral damage from what CK did. And over the past week, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about a bigger and more unfair potential domino effect of these sins: the impact it will have on the perception of Better Things going forward.
FX has severed its relationship with CK on this show, Baskets, One Mississippi and the upcoming (or probably not, since TBS has suspended production) The Cops. But where CK hadn’t written for Baskets since its first episode, and hasn’t really been involved with One Mississippi — which did an episode this year that was, in hindsight, inspired by CK’s misdeeds — on Better Things, every episode of the series was either written by him or co-written by him and Adlon (and, in a couple of season-one cases, a few other female writers). The show is heavily based on Adlon’s own life and family, and its voice is clearly hers and not his: Sam Fox here and the Pamela character on Louie are similarly blunt to the point of cruelty, but Sam is much warmer and more empathetic and complicated overall, and she’s chosen to make her life revolve almost entirely around her kids. Still, even if CK isn’t involved going forward, his role in these first two seasons, and in helping Better Things become as great as we’ve seen it be, can’t just be waved away, or even easily forgotten.
But the show is, ultimately, Adlon’s, and not just because she’s the one on camera and he hasn’t been. She’s also the one behind the camera for every episode this season (though he directed the series pilot), finding ever-more lush and intimate ways to shoot the chaos in and around Sam’s house. She’s the one drawing on the experience of herself and her own daughters, which led to stories like Frankie’s evolving gender identity. CK is the co-creator (and may have to still be listed as such at the start of each episode, depending on various guild rules), but Better Things owes so much to Adlon that it would be doing her, the series, and the current TV landscape in general a disservice to write it off because of his role in things.
All of which is a long but unfortunately necessary preamble to talking about “Graduation,” the beautiful conclusion to this fantastic season of television, coming up just as soon as I rub this onion on my feet…
“He’s not coming, baby.” –Sam
The fragmented, short story approach of Better Things often feels at odds with the intensely serialized model that most Prestige TV follows at the moment. A huge idea like Frankie potentially being trans will be introduced in one episode, and then never overtly discussed again, leaving viewers to parse things on their own based on clothing and pronoun choices. Even a plot that carried over multiple episodes this season like Sam’s relationship with Robin wound up ending largely offscreen. The show’s not about story arcs, but about individual moments — often really only about individual feelings, which is why an episode like “Rising” can conclude with an extended daydream — and expecting a major narrative throughline here is like waiting for your cat to roll over and beg on command.
But it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the season started with a party at Sam’s house where Max’s drama was the dominant subject, and that it ended the same way.
As the title of “Graduation” suggestions, the finale is about Max finishing high school, which for many people is the clear transition into adulthood. But as Sam notes, Max isn’t even 18 yet, and though she often attempts to take on adult airs — dating Macy’s thirtysomething ex-boyfriend, trying to get Sam to buy a keg of beer for her graduation party — she’s still very much a kid, prone to intense anxiety and rage and despair, carrying herself like a little girl with a barely quivering lip every time she tells someone at the party that “my dad” will be coming to take her out before the graduation ceremony. (Frankie, unbelievably awful and bratty though she can be, already seems more equipped for adulthood than her older sister.) We’ve gotten little hints of this throughout the year, not only with the older boyfriend, but the vignette where she was afraid to take her driving test, or how upset she got when Xander turned up at the house without warning, or most of her behavior in “Eulogy.”
For that matter, the two previous episodes this year about Xander (one featuring him, one not) helped set us up for his betrayal of Max here, when he opts not to come to his daughter’s graduation for mysterious reasons he’ll only describe as complicated and personal. (Though when he tells his ex, “People make their choices, Sam,” it sure sounds like it’s about a woman.) He’s less than useless as a father, in that he turns up just often enough to fill the kids with hope, which makes it feel even worse when he falls down on a huge obligation like this one. “Graduation” nicely walked us up to the inevitable here, particularly in Adlon’s performance: Sam justifiably assumes the worst about Xander in all instances, but she also doesn’t want to speak ill of her girls’ father in front of them because he already makes them suffer enough, so she has to mute her concerns, hope for the best, and prepare for what, as usual, turns out to be the worst.
As gorgeous as Adlon’s direction was last week in the wide open spaces of White Rock, it’s even more impressive in the scene where Max learns that Xander’s not coming. The composition of the shot where Max hears the news is stunning: a tableau of this devastated girl right in the middle of the frame, flanked on both sides by everyone else at the party hearing the news that most of them feared. (Or, in Phil’s case, assumed, as she says, “Oh, well. He was never coming.”) In the grand scheme of the world, this is a tiny, tiny tragedy, but to Max Fox, it seems like her whole world collapsing in on her, only for her actual world to pull her right back out of it, as the camera whips around to Rich and Sunny and Tressa and everyone else at the party as, one by one, they offer to drive her to rehearsal in Xander’s stead. These are the people who care about her, and this is the extended family that Sam has created for her, which is why a tearful Max thanks her for being “the best mom in the world.” So Xander’s not coming, so what? Who needs him?
(It’s to the show’s credit that even in an intensely sentimental tearjerking moment like this, there’s also room for jokes on the margins, from Rich’s goofy dance behind Max’s back when she chooses him as her driver, to Uncle Marion’s disappointment at being left out of Phil and Sam’s tea; Kevin Pollak’s deadpan delivery of “I like tea” is everything you would expect from him. In general, Better Things does a great job of hinting at the inner lives the recurring characters have independent of their relationship with Sam, never painting the whole picture, but drawing enough brush strokes so we can see that there is one. We don’t know exactly why Marion and Phil are on the outs — other than the repressed Englishness that was discussed in “White Rock” — and we don’t know exactly what’s up with Sunny and Jeff at the moment, but it feels like Adlon could follow them around for a while with ease if she wasn’t so focused on the mother-daughter dynamics.)
Despite the title, “Graduation” skips over the ceremony itself, perhaps because such an event ends up being about so many people that there’s no way to make such a scene feel as personal as that moment in the Fox living room. Instead, we cut to the morning after, with Max still basking in the glow of being a high school graduate, and finding a very mature and non-whiny way to ask why Sam didn’t give her a gift. Sam, as usual, is three steps ahead of her eldest, and not only has a piece of jewelry (which we only see glowing inside the box, like Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase), but the real present: herself, Frankie, Duke, and Phil performing the elaborate choreography of the video for “Tilted,” by Christine and the Queens:
Why this song? Is it meant to be a favorite of Max’s? Something Adlon or another member of the creative team saw and liked enough to work into the show? It doesn’t really matter, because like so much of Better Things, the context takes a distant second to the emotion. Again, this just feels like the perfect present for Max to receive from the rest of the women in the family, whether it’s because it lets her see her mom perform in a way that the rest of the world never will, because she’s seeing all four of them working in perfect harmony rather than their usual bickering, or simply because they went to all this effort just for her. The look of pure joy on Mikey Madison’s face tells us all we need to know; the rest is the sort of detail that the sheer grace of the series renders unnecessary.
So, yeah: great TV season ends greatly. But it ends with an episode co-written by a man who’s an utter pariah right now, and deservedly so. What do we do with this? Do we toss it all aside because his sins taint everything he worked on? Or do we think of the show like we think of Sam’s kids, with one parent doing amazing work, and one parent whose actions have made him unsuitable to be involved anymore?
When the series returns next year, this will be less of a dilemma, and it’ll be interesting to see how, or if, it feels different without its co-creator involved. But regardless of whose name was on the writing credits this week, and all the ones before it, Better Things is worth celebrating, whether with French choreography or just simple applause.