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Pamela Adlon's 'Better Things' Brilliantly Captures the Frustrating Minutia of Parenting

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 9, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 9, 2016 |

I’m not a yeller. My father wasn’t a yeller. His father wasn’t a yeller, either. But then I had twins, and suddenly, I yell. Not a lot, but sometimes. I never yelled at my son, but with two boisterous, defiant girls, I’ve become a yeller. It slips out during odd moments of frustration. “Damnit!” or “Stop that!” Or “Stop poking your sister with those scissors!” When it happens, I can hear myself yelling, and it feels otherworldly, like someone else inside of me. Who is this person yelling, I wonder? Where did he come from?

What makes it almost comically frustrating is that my daughters also yell on occasion. Sometimes, they yell at me. “No!” “I won’t!” or even “Damnit!” I should get angry with them, but I can’t, because when they yell, I hear myself. They yell, because I yell. It’s my stupid fault. I’ve made them this way, and even knowing that, once or twice a week, a “Stop that!” or “Please just quit it!” still escapes me.

I hate myself for it, but that’s what I’ve become.

That’s the kind of parenting detail that Pamela Adlon’s new FX series, Better Things, would pick up on. An episode into its first season, and it’s already well on its way to becoming the next Louie. In fact, it shares a lot in common with the Louis C.K. series. Not only did he co-create Better Things, but he co-writes it, he directed the pilot, and his unmistakable spare, indie style is on full display.

It’s also similar in the same ways that Pamela Adlon is similar to Louis C.K., but different enough to set it apart. The storylines are still slice-of-life, but they are less abstract, less introspective, and more relatable,

It’s an autobiographical series based on a single mom with three daughters and a husband who’s not really in the picture (Adlon has three daughters, is divorced, and her ex-husband lives in Germany). Likewise, Adlon’s character, Sam — like Adlon — does some acting and cartoon voice-work, and like Adlon, Sam competes for parts against Constance Zimmer, who is often mistaken for Adlon (in the pilot, they both lose out on a role to Julie Bowen).

Better Things is also more singularly focused on the minutia of parenting (at least in the pilot), and there it is brilliantly on point. “I’m dating my daughters. They’re my love life,” she says at one point. All she wants is a drama-free day, but with three daughters, it’s clearly out of the question.

In fact, the cold open will be familiar to almost any parents. It sees Sam sitting on a mall bench with her daughter who is bawling over a pair of earrings. “Do you want to buy her a pair of $6 earrings,” Sam says to a woman on the mall bench annoyed by Sam’s crying daughter. “Because that’s what she wants. She has them at home already, but she wants them for right now, so [if you want her to stop crying] you should go into the store and buy them for her.”

That’s the exasperated life of a parent with three kids, and throughout the opening episode, Better Things captures that repeatedly with not only her youngest daughter, but her middle daughter who wants to cut off her clit as a protest to the patriarchy, and her older daughter who wants her mom to buy her good pot. “You’re my mom,” her daughter says. “I want you to know if I have sex or I want to get high!”

“No!” Sam says. “Hide things from me! Please!”

“These things are normal,” she says. “But you should be ashamed of them.”


The pilot episode also track’s Sam’s fledgling dating life, her hesitance about doing risqué television scenes because her daughters might see them, and her search for the perfect porn, which is interrupted by her knowing daughter who barely bats an eye at her mom’s masturbation habits.

It’s early going, but Better Things already has the makings of a comedy that’s likely to be remembered for years, and — not that it matters — a stack of Emmys for Adlon, who might even best Julia Louis Dreyfus in the years to come. More importantly, however, Better Things is the kind of series loaded with identifiable moments that other parents can bond over in the way that married couples could self-reflexively bond over HBO’s Togetherness.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.