A new season of Better Things never begins right where the last one left off (just ask creator Pamela Adlon), and that’s not just because, on occasion, the wait between seasons has been a protracted one. The show and its characters are aware of the past but never beholden to it, which sounds like a good way to live (if you can swing it). While the lack of a bridge between the show’s closers and openers might have had a slightly disorienting effect early on, we’re now used to finding ourselves in the middle of a party, a big sendoff, or an extended scene of Sam trying to wriggle into a pair of now-too-tight pants at the start of a new season. Which is much closer to how we experience life, anyway—without neat segues or a coda.
While mostly staying in that tradition, the season-four opener, “Steady Rain” (B+), affords Sam more of a breather than usual while giving the audience a chance to catch up with the Fox family. The episode is paired with “She’s Fifty” (A-) to make up an hourlong premiere, a move that’s in keeping with the theme of recurrence that Adlon—who once again helms every episode this season—is looking to develop this year, along with others. Torrential rains feature in both episodes, evidence of the impression that last year’s heavy rainfalls in Los Angeles had on Adlon.
Rain symbolizes a lot of things, but in “Steady Rain,” a downpour is the harbinger of different types of outpourings, like Frankie’s elation at seeing her mom again after a visit with Xander (though that moment is cut short the instant Sam reciprocates) and Rich’s heartbreak. The lovely opening moments of the first episode show Los Angeles awash in rain, muting all other sound and washing away any lingering bad feelings. Adlon weaves the camera in and out of the girls’ bedrooms to show how lived-in yet empty they appear without Frankie and Duke in them, before landing in Sam’s own room, where she’s sleeping peacefully.
It’s a quietly effective reset, one that leads to a big family reunion at the airport, where Sam picks up Frankie and Duke, who have been with their father for an undisclosed amount of time (but Sam yells “Spring break” at one point, so maybe just a week?). Frankie and Duke actually show some consideration for their mom, which shows growth, but it’s not long before they’re taking her for granted again. That’s Sam’s life—and Better Things—for you.
The car ride from the airport fills us in on several other developments, not least of which is the portable defibrillator that Phil’s sporting after a cardiac episode. Things with Xander remain tense—and parasitic. Sam’s single again, happily so, and wants nothing to do with online dating despite Frankie’s suggestions. And they’re all under one roof again: Sam, Max, Frankie, and Duke. But in order to feel at home, Frankie redecorates her room, trading posters and her own thumbtacked art for a Mondrian-like pattern on the walls. Sure, it’s a little spur of the moment, but what else is adolescence for? I’m also inclined to think that this display is Frankie’s way of showing she’s ready to move past whatever was at the root of her conflict with Sam last year.
Everyone seems to be putting their best foot forward. Aside from a shouting match with Phil in the car, which was quickly resolved, “Steady Rain” is one of the more soothing episodes of Better Things. The girls are getting along with each other and with Sam; even Max, who works late nights and isn’t super nice to Sam’s wake-up call but could also be a lot worse. It’s not all rainbows, though, as Rich has to deal with being dumped by his much younger boyfriend. He’s lucky to have someone like Sam see him through it, but it’s Duke who surprises everyone with her compassion and wisdom. The little old soul walks right into Sam’s room, where poor Rich has been crying his eyes out (Diedrich Bader should never have a reason to cry!), to console her mom’s friend.
“Steady Rain” is very light on “I could just strangle that kid, figuratively” moments. Instead, it draws a line between immaturity and selfish actions. As Rich sobs about his ex Alan/Allen*, Sam gently reminds him that “He’s young, honey. That’s what young people do. They move on.” The episode also shows the compassion that young people are capable of, particularly when they’re raised by someone as giving as Sam. “She’s Fifty” changes gears, letting Sam run a little wild and make some potentially foolish decisions. The rain carries over into the second half of the premiere, but the sky clears up long enough for Sam to go to the gym with Lenny (Cree Summer), who is now separated from her husband. Sam tries to counsel Lenny, but probably loses a little credibility when she starts peeing into a diaper(s) in the car ride to the gym.
Written by Pamela Adlon and Ira Parker, “She’s Fifty” revels in the potential of Sam’s midlife crisis, which goes from looming to full swing. I’m not sure she would have done the diaper thing even a year or two ago, let alone gone about her day as if it never happened. Sam hasn’t completely lost her head; she makes cheering up Lenny the focus of the afternoon, consoling her friend by telling her that her soon-to-be ex-husband did her a favor. Sometimes, a clean break is better than a prolonged separation. You can’t move on until you’ve said goodbye. Of course, Sam doesn’t bring up how your ex can hang around, with his hand out, for years after your divorce has been finalized, or how considering cutting him off can leave you wracked with guilt. She can save that discussion for another day (and another diaper).
In addition to a few jokes about “the change in life,” “She’s Fifty” sets Sam up for the next chapter in her life. But first, she has to reckon with the past and present. Last season, she and Tressa ended their business relationship, which is why Sam is considering signing with a new manager, Mal (Mario Cantone). (She describes herself as “in between” managers at one point, hence my assumption that she hasn’t signed any paperwork yet.) She’ll probably have to make up her mind soon because, as she tells Tressa, she’s “poor now.” If Sam is having money troubles–and it would hardly be surprising, given that she’s financially responsible for five people aside from herself—it could explain why Xander needed to “remind” her to send him a lil’ something.
Sam has always been willing to work, but now it looks like she really needs to, which is how she finds herself auditioning for a role she originated: that of Rooster on Ching Of The Mill, which is a kind of analog to King Of The Hill. (Not a direct one, I hope). Yes, on Better Things, reboot fever has hit Mike Judge, who appears briefly to reminisce with Sam and talk about his “six 13-year-olds.” She’d already had to suck it up by agreeing to read for the part, as a formality, but when Sam realizes she is auditioning, you can feel the air go out of the room. It doesn’t matter that she smiles and does her best lil’ British kid voice, or that the producer played by Jeffrey Nordling, who’s only slightly less objectionable here than on Big Little Lies, is laughing during her read. You can tell by the look on her face and the way she says “Gee, I hope I get my own part!” that she doesn’t feel like she’s home again. It still knocks her for a loop when Tressa tells her that recordings of some deceased actor will be repurposed for the role of Rooster.
Sam is never lucky enough to have just one problem or just one pressing issue. Her midlife crisis comes with an ailing parent, a daughter who wants a quinceañera to “acknowledged that California is a Latinx commonwealth of people who have been marginalized,” a possibly traumatized chinchilla, a stolen car, a brokedown electric car, and a rejection from her old work family on Ching Of The Mill. She takes it all in stride; she calmly unhooks part of Phil’s bra/vest for her cardiac buddy, agrees to organize Frankie’s cotillion, makes room in her home for a chinchilla and a pet snake, and buys an El Camino. Some of those decisions are rash ones, but Adlon never gives off the sense that Sam is out of control, even after the scene in the recording studio. Sam is reeling, but she has way too many responsibilities to completely lose her shit, so she just has a little midlife crisis for now, as a treat.
Sam’s been hearing about her encroaching obsolescence for some time now, but for the first time, she doesn’t attempt to shrug it off or otherwise put off dealing with it. She’s steering into the skid with a V8 engine, and I look forward to seeing where she and Better Things season four end up.
- I love the little cooking interstitials that have become a part of the show’s storytelling. So often, we see people stirring huge pots of sauce without accompanying pots of noodles or whatever they’re going to put all that sauce on, which is just so fake and not at all homey. Adlon has said she thinks cooking “seasons” your home, and I adore that she seasons her show this way.
- Frankie wants a quinceañera, which I kind of want to see. Maybe it can give the great goth one in Los Espookys a run for its money.
- The “Jessica” that Jessica Barden plays in “She’s Fifty” swears a lot, says “men are shit, and played a possessed girl in a movie called The Prowler, so I guess she’s playing herself. Can’t wait to see what kind of project she and Sam work on together.
- Obviously, I recognized Mike Judge right away, but if the guy playing Curly, the PA turned EP, is someone I should recall from King Of The Hill, I’ll admit I’m stumped.
- Between “YouGoogleloo” and “exquisite corpse corps,” Better Things got in some subtle digs at media merger mania.
- Once more, the performances are great across the board, but Hannah Alligood is especially delightful in her little painting tableau.
- Welcome back to Better Things coverage! Thanks to FX on Hulu, I believe you can now catch the show the day after airing, so I look forward to reading your thoughts on the show as well. And, because I cannot help myself, here’s my interview with Pamela Adlon again: