Season 2 of Better Things, which stars Pamela Adlon as a working actress and single mother to three daughters in Los Angeles, begins with a close-up. A close-up of Adlon’s face. It lingers there for a few long moments, before cutting to a wider shot, revealing that she is sitting on the toilet. After another long moment she stands up, turns around, and puts a plunger in, gives it a few pumps, and then steps out of the bathroom, into a party that she is hosting at her home.
The scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the episode, or of the season. It’s just a real-life moment, and as such, something of a statement of purpose.
A half-hour comedy with a spiritual debt to executive producer Louis C.K.’s own FX half-hour, Louie (where Adlon played Louie’s on-again, off-again love interest), Better Things was terrific in its first season, and gets even better in its second. Like Louie, it is too restless to settle into a traditional three-act sitcom format, often jamming random scenes together that do nothing to advance any kind of plot, but do everything to tell us more about the characters.
And what terrific, well-drawn characters they are: Sam Fox (Adlon), worn out and cynical from the disappointment of her broken marriage and, even more so, the stress of raising three very different daughters entirely on her own; Max (Mikey Madison), the oldest daughter, who at 16 fancies herself totally grown-up and independent, except when she’s not; Frankie (Hannah Alligood), the precocious middle daughter who is the most like Sam and the one you would most want to spend an afternoon with; Duke (Olivia Edward) the youngest, sweetest, and least eccentric of the Fox women; and Sam’s mother Phyl (Celia Emrie), who lives across the street and drops pearls of dubious wisdom when she’s not blurting out what everyone else is thinking.
The first episode of this new season (I’ve seen four of them) is truly a marvel of economical storytelling, taking a premise that I won’t spoil and getting all the important details across with an absolute minimum of dialogue or overt exposition, while also managing to be touching, funny, and show Sam’s wisdom as a parent — wisdom that nearly any other parent would question (wisdom that Sam herself is clearly not totally confident in) until it’s proven right.
Sam’s world feels real and lived-in, rich with little details like the way all four of the women in Sam’s household, even in the midst of a bitter argument, will make sure to give the green Where’s Waldo-looking statue at the top of their stairs a pat on the head as they pass it, like a family tradition that has existed so long no one gives it a thought or a mention.
Also like Louie, Better Things resists such easy categorization as a comedy, indulging in moments of drama and just plain old moments that shed more light on the characters. You may not necessarily laugh out loud during a given episode, but you may catch yourself smiling broadly and realizing that you have been holding that pose since the last commercial break, as I did watching these new episodes.
There is a very loose overarching story to this season that involves Sam, totally broken and closed off romantically, meeting a guy she is interested in, and that story is absorbing and affecting. But there is so much terrific scenery to take in along the way, so many tiny moments and scenes, that this is the rare show that doesn’t feel like it’s wasting time when it indulges in sidebars that have nothing to do with anything.
Amazingly, Adlon directed every episode this season, and either wrote or co-wrote (with Louis C.K.) every episode as well. It’s a colossal achievement in itself, which makes the high standard that Adlon maintains across the season that much more impressive. This show may not be for everyone; it’s small, and subtle, and so finely drawn that it may seem slow to some. But it’s the most enjoyable viewing I’ve had yet for this new fall season, and I can’t recommend it more.
New episodes of Better Things air at 8pm ET Wednesdays on FX; new episodes will be available Thursdays on-demand.