We open on a young girl crying. She tugs at the arm of her mother, whose indifference clearly perturbs the woman sitting on the bench next to them. The wailing goes on, its grating sound irritating, yet compelling. In these few short moments, “Better Things” wordlessly establishes the unique narrative language it uses to tell the story of Sam Fox (show co-creator Pamela Adlon, “Louie”), a single mother of three trudging through the frustrations of everyday life.
Sam turns to the disapproving woman and bluntly asks, “Do you want to buy her the earrings?” revealing the reason for her daughter’s incessant crying. In the simplest and tersest way possible, Sam asserts her confidence in her parenting — a quality that defines her character and foregrounds the premise of the series. This teaser speaks volumes about the kind of character we can expect Sam to be and the kind of series we can look forward to, without actually expressing much verbally.
Though a half-hour comedy, FX’s new series, co-created by Adlon and Louis C.K. (“Louie”), dips its toe into drama territory — delivering its honest comedy (a particular brand of C.K.’s and Adlon’s) with the same nuance that presents itself in real-life, everyday challenges. This crossing of genres feels both natural and instinctively relatable — requiring minimal exposition in the delivery of both narrative content and comedy.
The scene following the episode’s teaser illustrates the succinct and often speechless manner in which information is delivered to us. In the shopping mall bathroom with her previously crying daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Sam receives a phone call from a man whose identity is revealed to us only through her exasperated moan and a hesitant “Hi, Richard,” then a cut to shot of him sitting in his office. A series of awkward vocalized pauses ensues before Sam curtly says “I’ll see you in school things,” putting an end to the painful conversation. The camera cuts back to a tightly framed two shot of Sam and Duke, evoking their close relationship. Sam’s honesty when Duke asks who was on the other end of the line and Duke’s knowing “Ew, eww!” in response echoes this closeness. With little spoken, this sequence conveys a network of meanings that provide a window into both the plot and theme of the episode as it gradually unfolds.
Adlon skillfully delivers a subtle range of emotions that convey the complexity of Sam’s relationships with her daughters, her struggles as a single mother and her vulnerability within her personal and love life. The artful precision with which the episode is cut and the often vague dialogue gives us just enough information to satisfyingly arrive at our own conclusions about the plot. And while dramatic in tone, the witty dialogue and physical comedy tactfully provide moments of relief when the burden of Sam’s exasperation become too much to bear.
A scene in which Sam shops for school supplies with her daughter Max (Mikey Madison, “Bound for Greatness”) is characterized by Sam’s irritation with being unable to find graph paper while Max, the stereotypical teenager, dejectedly plods ahead through the aisle. At one point, unable to contain her frustration, Sam yells out into the store “Does anybody work here?”, an extended gesture of her own isolation. Just when her frustration reaches a climactic point, she receives a comically unexpected response from a store employee over the loudspeaker, and her anger dissipates. It’s a moment that feels hilariously relatable, reflecting the trivial annoyances that culminate in a catharsis of anger and frustration before subsiding.
“Better Things” is emotional without being mawkish, hilariously self-deprecating without being slapstick and likely to be one of the best new shows this fall. Adlon demonstrates her skill as the much deserved lead of the show with an undoubtedly thrilling evolution to come.