Fans of Louis CK will find much to chew on in the comic and producer’s new show, Better Things, now running on Star World Premiere HD. Starring frequent collaborator Pamela Adlon as Sam, the show superimposes Louis’s trenchant humour on a pleasingly generous core. Playing a character raising three daughters while simultaneously trying to make a living as a television actor in Los Angeles, Adlon combines neuroticism with a candour that makes the show stand on its own in this current age of television gold.
Sam, we learn early on, is separated from her husband, and is thus left to singlehandedly care for a trio that has no dearth of personality. Eldest Max (Mikey Madison), at 16, is in the thick of teenage rebellion, driving her mother up the wall with unannounced parties and requests to smoke pot. Twelve-year-old Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is getting there too, her frustration with the way things are suitably juxtaposed with the innocence of one who is still only on the cusp of adolescence. Duke (Olivia Edward), at six, is the gentlest, nudging her mother with tender remonstrations to spend time with her.
Then there is Sam’s job, punctuated by rejections in favour of younger and better-connected actresses, and spot firing because of unforeseen changes in the script. Luckily, Sam has an intermittent, and thus far purely sexual, relationship with her neighbour. In one of my favourite scenes, an exasperated Sam (Max has invited a bunch of friends to her room after midnight without telling her) exchanges messages with this man – messages which, while sexual on the surface, are rather sweet for the promise of momentary romance they hold for their recipient.
There is also Sam’s mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street, and has a posh British accent that is never explained. Phyllis has had an extraordinary life, with multiple partners and daring adventures. Now old and lonely, she spends her time shuttling between Sam’s house and hers, and the relationship of the mother-daughter duo, a mix of the harried and the staid, is a highlight of the show.
But really, it’s about Sam’s daughters. Children can be a pain – they grow up too fast, and are never grateful. Max blames Sam for her father’s absence, and it is left to Sam to explain how not complaining about her situation does not mean she has it easy. Frankie is aghast when Sam, while speaking at her school on women’s empowerment, brings up talk of periods. The detour happens suddenly, as Sam finds her monologue failing to work the audience – and rouses the crowd by conducting a snap poll on who is and is not bleeding.
Two episodes down, the show is still finding its feet, but it has already set the stage for exciting times. From Transparent to The Fosters and Parenthood to Modern Family, household dynamics are the source of both rich comedy and engaging drama in critically acclaimed shows. Better Things is not substantially different from any of these. If anything, it leaves aside themes, like LGBT, that are the staple of today’s television. Yet, in approaching single motherhood from a wry perspective, and by casting the hugely talented Adlon in the title role, the show is destined for better things.