The “New Orleans” episode of Better Things could not have come at a better time. Truly, a jaunt to the Big Easy is just what Sam—and those of us experiencing the trip vicariously—need right now. Attention, all other TV shows: This is how you do a vacation/wedding episode.
Inspired by Pamela Adlon’s second trip to that grand old Louisiana city, “New Orleans” takes us on a spirited excursion through neighborhoods like the French Quarter and the Garden District, the sights and sounds turning our heads as readily as street drinking. We’ve seen Sam on trips before, but never like this (which could be the result of the potion she imbibes). There are no interruptions, no lackluster dating candidates, no guilt trips from her kids or mom. Sam literally kicks up her heels on the cobbled streets of New Orleans, taking in the city in gulps.
One of the most refreshing things about the episode is that, aside from the destination wedding, Adlon and writer Joe Hortua don’t overcomplicate Sam’s sojourn. She doesn’t also happen to be working in Louisiana, or doing anyone a favor. After Maneesh (Kunal Dudheker) and Andrew’s (Randy Rainbow) admittedly gorgeous nuptials, Better Things lets Sam loose upon the city, with no direction, just appetite. The show and its protagonist go with the flow, inspiring the audience to do the same. It’s a postcard of an episode and a love letter to a city burnished by adversity, complete with a title card declaration over the fading notes of the soundtrack.
In a callback to the season-three premiere, “Chicago,” Sam has traveled to New Orleans for the wedding of Maneesh, one of her fellow passengers on Flight 27, which saw the cockpit catch fire. That friendship struck under duress has grown into something more lasting, as evinced by the invitation. Ever charming, Sam is welcomed into Andrew’s family by his mother, Miss Louise (Elizabeth Ashley, winning us over in yet another half-hour series), who defends her new friend from some old drunk in an LSU cap who wanders over to tell Sam he used to masturbate to her. That unpleasantness is soon set aside, as Sam and Molly Shannon—because she’s not referred to by any other name in the show or credits, I’m just going to assume it’s the Molly Shannon—catch up in Molly Shannon’s New Orleans mansion. Molly is living her best life in New Orleans, getting more bang for her buck in the real estate market and just more bangs. “I’m picking dick out of my pussy,” she brags to a suitably impressed Sam. Soon, Sam admits she would also like “to pick dick out of my pussy.” “I’m moving to New Orleans,” she toasts with her friend.
I doubt Sam would actually go through with that pledge, because she’d have to uproot her kids; she could never convince Phil to move; and then there’s the whole Xander situation. Not to mention, Sam’s financial issues. Even if, as Molly says, your dollar goes further in New Orleans, Sam would be removed from the source of her income—Hollywood. She’s traveled for work before, but if she moves, that would become a regular thing. And, as has been noted this season, she’s not in the same demand she once was. Still, it’s clear that Sam’s ready for a change, and Better Things treats the move as a real possibility even in the final moments of the episode, when Mae the real estate agent (Geraldine Singer) calls to tell Sam the house she liked is back on the market.
The notion of spirits/ghosts discussed in “Carbonara” carries over this week, as Sam finds herself face to face, again and again, with a character who’s only ever been referred to as Sam’s Ex (hello again, Mather Zickel). The nature of their relationship has yet to be explained on the show; back in season two, we saw them hook up on a few occasions as Sam ran from Robin. Better Things never gives us the full backstory, but hints at real intimacy in other ways: Witness the way the ex gives Sam one of the cigarettes he lights in his own lips, mimicking the move we saw Ricky Ricardo pull on his wife during a rerun of I Love Lucy playing in Sam’s hotel room the night before. They’re drawn to each other, almost irresistibly, while in New Orleans. First, Sam collides with her ex and his spouse or partner Lainie (Michelle Lukiman), in the Garden District, then again at Molly Shannon’s mansion, and finally, at some out-of-the-way jazz club. Before episode’s end, they’ve stopped trying to fight it, walking alongside each other after most of the rest of the raucous city has gone to bed.
This could be another retread for Sam, but it could also just be a brief detour—you know, vacation behavior. The same goes for a possible relocation: As captivated as Sam was by Molly’s stories and the exuberance of the Big Easy, with its crawfish boils, Mardi Gras parades, and round-the-clock drinking, I’m not sure she’s ready to pack up. But what’s most exciting about this development is that Sam is even considering it. As Jean Stapleton once consoled Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, she is “daring to imagine that [she] could have a different life.” For Better Things and for Sam, middle age is many things—a fork in the trail, a time for a little freakout in the form of an impractical car—but it’s not a bump in the road. In season four, it is the road, one that, as it enters its back half, has offered a helluva ride.
- This was really such a beautifully and lovingly shot episode, one that really puts you in Sam Fox/Pamela Adlon’s mindset. But credit also to Adlon and her team for being so conscientious about New Orleans as a setting. We get the starry-eyed view of a visitor with time and some cash (if not as much as before) to burn, but Adlon also makes sure to note that daydreaming about buying beautiful old houses isn’t something most people in the city can afford to do.
- I do love New Orleans, even if the humidity made me feel like I was being sucked out of an airlock. The Big Easy squeezes you.
- Always good to see Molly Shannon, who still likes to kick, stretch, and kick.
- The credits include the master oyster shuckers Michael Broadway and Stormin’ Norman Conerly. It was also a nice touch to have Rhonda Johnson Dents, who starred in a couple of episodes of Treme, standing in for the tough women cab drivers Adlon so admired in her time in New Orleans.
- I’ll admit, I got choked up listening to Randy Rainbow sing Tom Waits’ “Martha.” But was running into her ex what moved Sam to tears?