The Pamela Adlon-created comedy Better Things (Thursday at 10/9c, FX), continues to deliver the same level of quality viewers have come to expect from the auteur-preferred FX while adding yet another distinct voice to a network that's overflowing with rich art and creative freedom. A semi-autobiographical comedy based on Adlon's experiences as a working actor raising three young women, the series is rich in personality and possesses the strange ability to feel totally fresh while also resembling something as familiar as a worn copy of a favorite paperback book.
In the series, Adlon's Sam Fox is a former child star and a working actress making ends meet with regular guest appearances and doing a lot of voiceover work — something with which Adlon is intimately familiar, having voiced roles on many animated series, even winning the Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance in 2002 for her role as Bobby Hill on King of the Hill. Like Adlon, Sam is a single parent to three daughters (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward) — who range in age from preadolescent to hormonal teen — and also still finds time to look after her spirited English mother (Celia Imrie) who lives across the street.
Although many viewers will be quick to draw comparisons to FX's Peabody Award-winning comedy Louie-- which was inspired by comedian and Better Things executive producer Louis C.K.'s real life, and on which Adlon appeared more than a dozen times — the actions of Sam and her family stand on their own as a worthy achievement in storytelling for the way it captures parenting woes and life's universal truths.
As Better Things navigates the waters of Sam's everyday life, it successfully portrays her struggles to balance the roles she takes on, from actor to mother to daughter to friend and back again. It's through Sam's flaws and this depiction of life's complications and imperfections that the show really shines. But the series' greatest triumph is the way it presents a world with a strong and dominant female voice without feeling like it's serving an agenda.
There's a dearth of realistic female voices and relationships on TV, and Better Things is notable not just for its subtle but radical feminism but also for its depiction of mother-daughter relationships and how those relationships build and grow over time. And because of its setting and Sam's career, the series also makes a point to truthfully depict how women of a certain age are viewed, both within the too-critical entertainment industry and outside of it. But while Sam's acting career is a major part of who she is and leads to some of the series' most interesting arcs, the real meat of Better Things is in the relationships portrayed between the Fox women, so much so that even an apparent love interest of Sam's is little more than a passing ship in the night.
In Adlon's hands — she writes, stars and sometimes even directs — Better Things is subtle and fluid, existing outside the preconceived notions of traditional comedy, and in that sense it really is a lot like Louie, which became increasingly hard to define as it aged, and even feels a bit like kin to both Atlanta and You're the Worst, two more of FX's recent half-hour creations that are distinct in tone and identity.
As a look at life, parenting and womanhood across multiple generations, Better Things is a refreshing departure from the heavy dramas focused on the actions of male antiheroes that littered the Golden Age of TV, and it's compelling in a way that the reboots and revivals currently lining the walls at networks are not. Its stories don't feel tired or worn, even when Sam is tired and worn, and somehow just knowing that you're not alone in this complicated world is what makes Better Things a comfortable place to return to time and again.
Better Things premieres Thursday, Sept. 8 at 10/9c on FX.