If you’re one of those people for whom Better Things has lingered temptingly on the periphery of your awareness, let me just say: watch it, because it lives up to the title. This delightful, quirky FX comedy stars Pamela Adlon in what may be a semi-autobiographical role as an actress named Sam Fox. Negotiating the trials of being a middle-aged woman working in Hollywood is difficult enough, but Sam faces even bigger challenges at home: she’s a single mom raising three temperamental daughters, even as she pays alimony to an absent, deadbeat husband. The girls — entitled eldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison), clever, androgynous middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and cute youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) — are a handful, to say the least. But Sam’s also looking out for her problematic nuisance of a mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street.
Outwardly, Better Things doesn’t look particularly original: it could easily be a conventional sitcom with three cameras and a laugh track. Its disgraced co-creator, Louis C.K., may also taint its pedigree for some viewers. But that’s a disservice to Adlon, who is sensational in a rich central role, and is clearly the comic heart and auteur mind behind the project. The simple setup ramps quickly into something really unique and special, as Sam’s weird LA life gains dimensions and the family’s comically contentious interactions grow in depth and nuance. Sam’s daughters are distinctly drawn, by turns adorable and infuriating, making for plenty of hilarious conflict. And Sam’s wider found-family is a joy, especially her no-nonsense manager Tressa (Rebecca Metz) and her gay bestie Rich (the brilliant Diedrich Bader). Perhaps the best thing about the show, though, is its structural unpredictability. Every episode has a weird, unexpected shape, taking us into weird little corners of the family’s personal universe and never opting for simple answers or resolutions. In this sense, it reminds me a bit of Mozart in the Jungle, another comedy that refuses to develop and adhere to a formula.
Better Things doesn’t come without complaints. The most glaring is that the Foxes live in a bubble of unexamined wealth and privilege that occasionally makes their whining all the more grating. I definitely wish they could be nicer to each other more often. But overall this is a layered, frequently surprising, and ultimately quite satisfying comedy series with interesting things to say and unusual, memorable ways of saying them.