I’m trying to pinpoint the moment when I first realized FX’s “Better Things” was something special. It might have been within the first few minutes of the show, when single mother, Sam (Pamela Adlon, “Star vs. the Forces of Evil”) is talking to her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward, “The Outside Story”) in a mall bathroom. They’re discussing the dads in Duke’s class, some of whom Sam has hooked up with in the past.
“What about Charles’s dad? What about him?” asks Duke.
“Is he tall?” Sam jokes.
“To me,” Duke says.
Though they may seem mundane or simple to the untrained eye, so many little things — the location, Duke’s response, the matter-of-factness with which Sam approaches her love life — work together to elevate “Better Things” above any shows it might be compared to, though it’s difficult to even imagine anything similar.
“Better Things” follows Sam Fox, an actress and single mother raising three daughters: sweet Duke, testy Frankie (Hannah Alligood, “The Divergent Series: Allegiant”) and entitled Max (Mikey Madison, “Monster”). The tone is less “Gilmore Girls” and more like that opening sequence of “Lady Bird,” when Saoirse Ronan throws herself out of the moving car. The show is an extended inquiry into the inventive and inaccurate ways that daughters project introspection onto the world, how mothers must constantly decide whether to administer or withhold the truth in response.
One strength of “Better Things” is that the show’s focus on parenthood and childhood puts four different mother-daughter dynamics at the forefront. Sam and her oldest daughter, Max, alternate between intense love and deep frustration; one feeling often amplifies the other. As a senior in high school, Max is old enough to think she knows her mother as a person outside their relationship, but she’s also young enough that this image of her mother is wildly inaccurate. Their tiffs are some of the show’s best work: Max says something ridiculous, Sam takes the bait. Max instinctively is open with her mother, but Sam prefers that she hides things. One of their first scenes alone in the pilot exemplifies this.
After Max asks Sam to buy her good weed, Sam tells her daughter not to share quite so much.
“Why, you’re my mom, I want you to know if I have sex or if I want to get high,” Max replies.
“Ah! No, hide things from me,” Sam says.
Later, Frankie bursts in while Sam is trying to watch porn. Spread-eagle on her mother’s bed, she wonders aloud if she should undergo female genital mutilation as a protest.
“Get out!” Sam yells in response.
The scene is typical of “Better Things”: a daughter intruding on her mother, a child saying something insane with complete, deadpan seriousness. “Better Things” treats the absurd urgency of adolescence as real but idiotic, a drive for self-expression that endures into adulthood. The show is unique among family dramas in that it never shies away from recognizing the never-ending push and pull between parents and children. Adlon, who both writes and stars in the show, is continuously finding new ways to acknowledge the complicated net of desire and disgust that makes a family.
It’s rare that a show immediately creates a fully-formed world, but this is a feat that “Better Things” manages easily. The characters feel real in the best way, eschewing universality for specificity. What’s most striking and enjoyably familiar is the raw friction of seeing what happens when children and parents need radically different things from each other. Rather than leaning on tropes, “Better Things” takes on the hilarity and grief of the mundane: a woman giving her dogs their ear medicine, a daughter storming out of the DMV, a child crying over a nightmare. Nothing is special, so everything is.
Nearly every scene in “Better Things” is infused with an awareness of how quickly a moment can escalate, how sometimes every conversation between a mother and daughter feels like a test: of love, of mutual understanding, of how well-versed each is in the needs of the other. Now in its third season, the show is an underappreciated gem in both writing and performance — the rare comedy-drama that simultaneously embraces poignancy and humor, understanding the impossibility of separating the two.