TV: Better Things (Season 5)

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic-delayed fifth season of Better Things is well worth the wait. This delightfully unpredictable dramedy stars Pamela Adlon in an unforgettable performance as Sam Fox, a funny, neurotic working actor in LA. Her exploits generally involve efforts to raise three quirky children, keep an eye on her vexing mother across the street, and make sense of her career as she negotiates Hollywood in middle age.

Better Things is an extremely slice-of-life show, so the seasons don’t have conventional arcs, but the life being sliced is full of terrific characters and funny moments, even as the scenarios bounce from ordinary to unorthodox. There is kind of a quiet, inchoate theme to this season, however, as Sam prepares for the end of an era. Her eldest Max (Mikey Madison) is drifting out of the nest, her prickly middle child Frankie (Hannah Riley) comes out as nonbinary, and young Duke (Olivia Edward) is suffering from depression as she gazes into an uncertain and daunting future. Being anchored to her career, her children, her mother Phyl (Celia Imrie), and her house has informed Sam’s life for so long that the idea of moving on from those aspects of her life—as she is forced, by turns, to contemplate this season—has her constantly on the edge of an existential crisis. She negotiates the turmoil with a mix of deflecting humor, loving sacrifice, emotional exhaustion, and understandable panic.

Clearly written and refined during the pandemic, season five serves as an interesting window onto the passage of time in our tumultuous era. So much has gotten so dire in the six years since Better Things launched. Smartly, it uses our ongoing menagerie of crises to subtly inform character, particularly as it relates to the development of Sam’s troubled children and the uniquely harrowing challenges of both parenthood and growing up during a period when the future has grown so perilous. This gives the show an opportunity to lean into the thematic resonance I’ve always read into the title: Sam has always tried to give her family the “better things” in life, but how does one do that in the face of so much uncertainty? Without dwelling on the details, season five dives into the emotions of the time to wrestle with it artistically. In the meantime, the show continues to deliver better things than other shows tend to give us: more hilarious, argumentative scenes between Sam and her fiscally responsible brother Marion (Kevin Pollak); a touching, unnervingly timely subplot involving Max, who leans on the avuncular support of Sam’s gay best friend Rich (an ever-delightful Diedrich Bader); nicely engineered Hollywood encounters between Sam and real-life industry folks like Ron Cephas Jones, Danny Trejo, and (in a true Gen X deep dive) Marty Krofft; Mikey’s drunken physical comedy; Duke’s intense, unexpected music video; a cringeworthy pronoun conversation between Sam and Frankie that powerfully illustrates their growing disconnect; a touching bathroom encounter between Sam and Frankie’s closeted gay friend Jay (Kevin Phan); an episode where Sam half-successfully turns the house into a cellphone-free zone; impressive, funny emotional turns from Marion’s buttoned-down wife Caroline (Rosalind Chao); a family trip to England; and more. For a show as scattered and structurally dizzying as Better Things, it remained consistently winning and thought-provoking, and these characters will absolutely be missed.

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