Sometimes an episode of television hits at the perfect time. There’s no way that the writers of “Alarms” — Pamela Adlon, Louis CK, and Gina Fallore — knew that a shitstorm of sexual assault allegations would be hitting Donald Trump all at once, sparking a national conversation about the nature of these damaging encounters and consent, as well as the aggressions that women face on a daily basis. But here the episode is, in all of its glory, perfectly illustrating these conversations and criticisms in a way that shows how workaday these assaults — big and small — can become. Have a boy who could be your child show you his erection, keep going with your day.
The episode starts as Drexel (Tom Amandes) comes onto to Sam even though she makes no advances toward him. He asks if she smokes and talks to her suggestively. He just loves arts lovers. But, soon, he’s whisked away by the younger woman whom he came with. He was just playing with Sam, he had no intention of being with her. Just of distracting her from what she had originally gone to the gallery to do: listen to music and enjoy art. At first, it seems as if this scene portends an episode where Sam laments aging, not just because of her career, but because of how she is desired. But as in “Brown,” Sam’s desirability is never in question, and it’s one of things that I really love about this show. But that’s only a small part of what this episode is about.
(Sidebar: Another thing I love about this show is how we come into the story of Diedrich Bader’s Rich in midstream. Sam is the hyper-focus of the series — it wasn’t until “Future Fever” that we got multiple scenes without her — but there are things going on around her that she continues to acknowledge, whether it’s Sunny’s failing marriage, or whatever the fuck Rich is going through. It works particularly well in this episode because it hops from scene to scene, only show small bits of what Sam is going through. But even if this show isn’t about Rich and his problems — although I want to know why he didn’t really have to tell that man’s wife “he” is gay — Adlon and co. still suggest there are lives going on around what Sam his so heavily focused on.)
This episode isn’t about aging at all, even if it’s bookended by Phil’s inability to care of herself. It’s Sam’s first instinct to blame the awkwardness and rejection she felt after that encounter on the other woman. But as the episode goes on, it reveals itself to be about these aggressions, whether it’s the older man with a younger girlfriend hitting on Sam, only to have it taken away; or the kid young enough to her son making a move on her, no matter how awkward; or the lead in her sitcom calling her “a hottie” (if only she had tits).
But just as much as it’s about aggressions, the episode is about the gender roles forced upon us. Sam goes shopping with her daughters who, naturally, are terrible humans, and yet a woman stops Sam and Max on the way out to tell Sam how lucky she is to have three daughters. They both sweetly say thank you, without acknowledging the comments Max and Frankie previously lobbed at their mother. When Sam encounters Phil at the end of the episode, Sam once again has to be the caregiver to the person who once took care of her. On the set of the pilot, Sam fills a role entirely constructed on gender roles: the sitcom mom. Sam’s co-star makes sure that she knows that the pressure of the pilot is all on him, rather than a shared burden. He’s the guy, she’s the hired help, the hot mom who doesn’t have the tits, despite her decades in the business. For Jesse, Sam is the sexual object, rather than the mentor. She can’t exist in any other way for him.
The scenes between Sunny and Sam are one of the reasons it’s so hard to call Better Things a comedy, and it was some of the most powerful work the show has done. The role of the wife has many layers in “Alarms.” There’s the sitcom version that Sam plays, although she doesn’t get any of the best lines, and is still considered a supporting player by the guy playing her husband. There’s the ex-wife, as perceived by Sam’s ex (Matthew Glave), who can only view Sam as the superior, demanding shrew, when in fact she’s being quite rational about the father of her children’s relationship with said children: They don’t pine for him, they don’t need him, they are living their lives just fine without him. But it’s Sunny’s situation that is the saddest because of the role both Sam as her friend, and me as an audience member, want her to play. The narrative that Sam wants, and that I want, is for Sunny to cast off her Tinder-using no-good husband. But Sunny can’t do that. She’s not ready. She might be some day but not now. That’s not the role of the spurned wife we see very often, and I’m glad Better Things can show it.
“Alarms” was a truly fantastic episode of television, coming just after the halfway point in the series. Adlon and her team have been giving us a solid, enjoyable, and meaningful show up until this point but “Alarms” felt like it transcended even those positive attributes for something beyond.