Written by Dylan Brandsema
Most proper reviews should, at some point, include a brief summary of the plot or story of whatever it is that is being talked about. In the case of the Better Things premiere, it would be more of a list. Essentially nothing happens in the 33-minute pilot episode, yet it still feels like we’ve had a shared experience with our esteemed protagonist.
Pamela Adlon plays Sam, a single mother of three struggling to make a living as an actress in the film industry. There’s your basic synopsis. A summarized layout of the actual events that take place is as follows (not in order):
She shows up to audition for an unspecified role, but leaves when she finds actress Julie Bowen doing the same.
She records a voice-over for a children’s cartoon, but is constantly interrupted by phone calls and her own frustration.
She goes shopping with one of her daughters and gets angry because she can’t find graph paper.
She has a conversation with one of her daughters about sex and smoking pot.
One of her daughters walks in on her with her pants down as she’s about to watch Internet porn.
She gets worried when participating in a movie scene where someone performs oral sex on her that her daughters might see it one day.
None of those events are what you would call significant plot points. In fact, there’s no plot of any kind to be found anywhere other than what one might call a “day in the life” meditation of sorts. The beef of the episode is in simply getting to know the character of Sam – understanding what motivates her, seeing what brings her joy, and seeing the minor every-day obstacles she has to overcome. On the surface, this sounds like boring existential meandering, but it’s quite the opposite – the watchability of the episode comes from just watching Sam behave and react. Adlon is often a master at saying a whole hell of a lot by simply standing there, often completely silent. Take, for example, the opening shot: We meet Sam sitting on a bench in a shopping mall staring intently at her phone. Her youngest daughter stands beside her crying for an unexplained reason, but Sam pays no attention, as if she isn’t there. Eventually, rather than calming her daughter down, she asks the other woman on the bench who is staring at her if she would please mind her own business. It’s all about implications of unspoken thoughts. It’s kind of like if Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles were a TV show.
The series comes to us from star Pamela Adlon and her creative muse of late, Louis CK, with the duo co-writing every episode and CK directing. These two are, of course, also responsible for CK’s critically acclaimed FX series, Louie, and they both also starred in the short-lived, but much-loved HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie. Many will expect, by default, that Better Things is essentially a female version of Louie, and, in fairness, its themes of parenthood and cynical, stoneface approach to the dreary humdrumness of every-day life are very similar, but the general focus is different. While Louie never claims have to one specific focal point (often squeezing multiple incomplete storylines in one episode, then never re-visiting them again) and quite frequently is nothing but silly shenanigans, Better Things is very clearly about how the struggles of being a single mother affects one’s career and personal life.
One would also expect, by sheer association, that the series is a comedy. In some respects, it is, but I wouldn’t categorize it as such full stop. There are certainly funny moments (the aforementioned porn scene being the best of them), but being funny isn’t the point here, I don’t think. It functions more as an observational piece, above everything else, it seems, which is an interesting twist, and certainly a successful way of toying with our expectations.
There’s a pressure, I think – or perhaps more of an assumption – that a pilot has to hit the ground trails blazing to successfully get its audience’s attention. If there was ever a new show that has had an advantage over others in the sense that it can deliberately move at a snail’s pace, and have its pilot play more like sneak preview or a first act, it is this one. On the basis of simple name and network recognition, this show already has a built-in audience who will likely stick with it when most audiences would tune out. It doesn’t need to start off with a masterpiece to set its gears in motion. It’s a solid, good premiere, but it doesn’t need to be anything else. And given the small glimpses we’ve seen at further episodes in the show’s promotional material, even better things will soon come from Better Things, I suspect.
OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10