'Better Things,' Pamela Adlon, and the Complicated Relationship with Louis C.K.
Two of my favorite half-hour “comedies” this year came from women with connections to Louis C.K. With Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi, there were no complications. Though Louis C.K. was still listed as an exec-producer on her show, Notaro had not only separated herself from Louis C.K., but she used her show to speak out against the very acts for which Louis C.K. has been accused. It was a terrific season of television that hit me like a ton of bricks.
Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is a lot more complicated. It’s exactly the kind of show we should be celebrating. It’s a magnificent, funny, heartbreaking, genuine series about the challenges and triumphs of raising children as a single mom. More than any other sitcom since, well, Louie, it’s a show that feels like art, like poetry, and last week’s episode may have been the best half hour of television in 2017.
For those who haven’t seen it, “Eulogy” is a legitimate television masterpiece. Viewers do not have to be familiar with the show to understand it, either, so it’s worth tracking down and watching. Jen Chaney over on Vulture gets to the heart of what makes it so special:
“Eulogy” is my favorite Better Things episode of season two so far because it’s emblematic of what this show does at its very best: highlight how cruel people can be to each other, especially mothers and daughters, while ultimately finding a way to let their humanity shine through the pettiness.
The episode sees Adlon’s character, Sam — who feels completely unappreciated by her daughters — compel them to eulogize her, as though she were dead, because she wants to feel appreciated in life and not only after she has died. I love the episode so much I made my wife watch it with me a second time, and I teared up both times, although Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate had some serious reservations. She said it was fucked-up and traumatizing for Sam’s kids, and I think there’s some merit to that, too, but I thought that Diedrich Bader’s fantastic contributions to the episode leavened it just enough to elevate the episode’s poignancy over the emotionally manipulative act of Sam.
It’s a brilliant, pitch-perfect acrobatic piece of writing, and though Adlon directed and starred in the episode, the show’s other co-creator actually wrote it: Louis C.K.
Better Things consistently twists my stomach in knots on two levels: I love it, and Louis C.K. is a huge part of it. It’s become increasingly difficult to separate the art from the artist these days, but where Better Things is concerned, there’s an added dimension to the dilemma: This show is precisely the kind of show that should be championed, and Pamela Adlon is an incredible, unique voice that provides a seldom-seen perspective on single moms. But in the back of my mind, there’s always that, “Yeah, but …” And the more you think about Adlon and Louis C.K., the more you think about this scene from Louie:
I honestly have no idea how to process this, and I’m worried that I’ll say the wrong thing in trying to do so. Most of you don’t watch Better Things, so you’ll probably feel comfortable tossing it out in spite of its brilliance.
But here’s a thought experiment: Say you go see Deadpool and you love Deadpool and you think that Deadpool is one of the best movies of the year, and then you find out afterwards that Woody Allen ghost wrote the entire script, and then you remember that a few years ago, Ryan Reynolds was in a Woody Allen movie about an older guy falling in love with his step-daughter.
Now what do you think of Deadpool? What if Deadpool was truly unique and offered a much-needed feminist perspective seldom explored in movies? And what about Ryan Reynolds? What if the allegations against Woody Allen were just low-rumbling rumors that Woody Allen refused to address? Do you throw out the bath with the bathwater? What if the bath water was only partially dirty and the other half had much-needed disinfectant? What if the dirt and the disinfectant were creative partners? ARE YOU GOING TO STOP WATCHING CATE BLANCHETT MOVIES NOW OR WHAT?
I dunno. I just don’t know.
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