‘Better Things’ Gets Even Better

Better-Things-Season-2-Release-DateAs good as the first season was, “Better Things” (FX, 10 p.m.) gets even better as its second season starts tonight.

Pamela Adlon, who stars, co-writes and directs each episode has found a kind of breakthrough in making a series about a woman like herself, who is a struggling actor and a single mom, balancing a trio of eccentric daughters.

Eschewing the rhythms not only of multi-camera sitcoms, but even those of more modern single camera comedies as well, her series, like the series of her writing partner and co-producer Louis C.K., “Louie,” more into the realm of 70s films, where things happened, moved to the next scene, and things weren’t always spelled out for the viewer.

In tonight’s season premiere, she begins by herself in the bathroom, trying to calm herself with breathing, before she enters her rambling home, where there is a party going on.

We figure out on her own the reason her friend (Lucy Davis) is upset is because her ex-boyfriend, a 35 year old European sleaze, has dropped her for Max (Mikey Madison), the teenage daughter of Adlon’s character Sam.

Sam’s doing all she can not to lose it, in fear of losing her. “If I want to have my daughter in my house, I have to have him here,” she explains.

This seems like excellent mothering, except that her youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) is playing a wholly appropriate Truth or Dare game with her friends upstairs.

Eventually, Max has a heart to heart. She’s in over her head with this relationship; he brings her to parties where people are all 40. Mom nods and knows what to do. The kiss-off is imminent.

None of this builds to a big laugh riot, but rather a pleasingly realistic set of scenes that engage with the characters and performances. Music plays a role as well. Already Adlon has been paying a lot to use John Lennon’s “Mother” as the show theme song. This season’s music allowance doesn’t let up either, with the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Son House’s “John the Revelator” and the Kinks “Around the Dial” all cued up as end credit songs (The latter suggests she must know of the Kinks’ song “Better Things,” even if she hasn’t used it yet).

One big theme this year is her meeting a single dad she could really get serious about, and it really scares her. She’s got a lot to worry about; Sam’s brash personality can be pretty hard to take, and the navigation can be tough. Then there’s problems with aging pets and her aging mother (Celia Imrie) who lives next door.

There is a glimpse into the acting life, which a scene of her doing cartoon voice overs and a car commercial over and over and over. But she’s good enough to be a teacher of an acting class as well, where she informs her students that 95 percent of the stuff they’ll be given to say will be terribly-written.

It’s from one of the episodes written by C.K. and turns into one of the best, when Sam demands to hear what others would say to her at her eulogy.

In another that he wrote, episode two, begins with an elaborate kiss-off of a guy she’s been dating that she barely tolerated; it ends with a girls’ trip that she flees — or seems to flee — so she can spend time with her daughters. That kind of imagining, and magical realism was a trait of his old series.

And “Better Things,” oddly, may be the closest things we’ll have to “Louie” going forward, as he seemed to show no interest in continuing that show (and there’s no new season in the works).

C.K. and Adlon go way back, of course. They played husband and wife in their noble HBO experiment “Lucky Louie,: which attempted to see if the multi-camera, live audience approach could actually work with modern comedy. She’s popped up since then as a crazed wife on Californication and of course on Louie too.

C.K. told reporters at the TV Critics Association summer press tour last month that it was “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal who suggested he use Adlon for “Lucky Louie” all those years ago.

“She came in, and she was unlike anybody else I had seen doing comedy acting, and I had never heard of her,” ” he said. “Then I looked up and saw that she was [voice of] Bobby Hill [on ‘King of the Hill’], that she had been around since ‘Grease 2’ and all of these wonderful things. She had a great pedigree and a great amount of experience.

“But when she came in to play the mom, she looked like a tired mom who was failing at being a mother,” C.K. said, “And  you are just not allowed to show that.”

She was great on that show, he said, and added a lot of ideas and dialog. “And then she helped me on my series for all five seasons as an actor, but, also, she was my most reliable sounding board. And she gave me the best ideas that I didn’t have, and they were better than some of mine. So that’s what made me want to take a crack at letting her do her own series on FX.”

The jump to directing all 10 episodes this season seemed formidable to outsiders, but Adlon says. “I’ve been raising my three daughters, you know, and doing it on my own, and that’s kind of like the best boot camp for something like this. So I’m able to multitask. And, you know, things just came through me, and it was in a sense easier. And my show is very handmade. So it was a natural progression for me.”

I asked Adlon what accounted for the shift in tone this season.

“I feel like each episode is kind of like a little, short film. It feels like, you know, she’s going deeper and exploring and getting uncomfortable,” she said.

“The first season, trying to find our way and balance and certainly me trying to find my voice in the character,” she said. “I’ve been working my whole life and then, all of a sudden, I’m essentially playing myself, and I’m, like, ‘How does she talk? Do I give manicures and pedicures for a living? No. Just be the person that you are.’ And so, to be able to flesh out from there. Now it just feels like we are living in this world.”

CK. said it was that way for him too.

“My experience has been that when you make a first season of a show, you are figuring out what the show is. You are figuring out what’s good or bad about it, what people like or don’t like about it and what you are good at and not good at. So, in the second season, you make that show that you discovered in the first season, or stages. Sometimes it takes people two seasons to do the figuring out, and then in the third season, they make it. And then you perfect it over a certain amount of seasons, and then you just keep doing it after a while, and then you sputter out or whatever happens.”

So, when I asked him the future of “Louie” it seemed like he thought of it in the sputtering-out period.

“The version of “Louie” that was on FX, I don’t think I’ll do that exact version again because I just haven’t been that guy for a while, with the stained black T shirt and the two kids.”

Indeed, he was wearing a suit and tie for the reporters. And his kids were teens.

“They are older now, and I’m an older dad. So I don’t know, but I don’t think about it much,” he said. “I always thought that if I did ‘Louie’ again, I might circle back to it later — a different version. I have no idea if that will happen again.”

“I really love making TV,” C.K. said, “and right now, for me, I’m involved with her show, and I think it’s the best show on TV.”

 

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