Like Nothing Else On TV: Why Better Things Is America’s Obsessive Comedy Drama | Television & radio
I was in America in February for an indulgent post-pandemic vacation – you can say a lot about someone who chooses to vacation in America, I think, so enjoy everything you just gleaned about me – and was there for the US launch of the final season of Better Things (Sunday, 10:15 p.m., BBC Two), which was everywhere. Everywhere. Every time I went to get a stack of IHOP pancakes, a triple-width Better Things billboard stared back at me. Every time I legally got high in a hotel room in Los Angeles and tried different exotic flavors of Pringles in bed, Better Things trailers and interviews played me on TV. Conversations with Americans — so often about baseball being 10 hours long but “in a good way” — inevitably turned to the show’s final season. What about this dramatic comedy that has the United States in a headache?
To get it you have to watch a few episodes I’m afraid, but once it clicks, it really clicks. Co-created by, written by, starring and based loosely on the life of Pamela Adlon (Californication, Louie, the voice of Bobby from King of the Hill), Better Things follows actor and mom of three Sam Fox as that she’s slamming around LA and trying to string together enough acting and directing gigs to earn some sort of income — while constantly battling her mother, Phil (played elegantly as always by Celia Imrie). It has a lot of everything – in its “wise mother having a cool relationship with her daughter” sequences, it’s more like Gilmore Girls; in his parts “padding around a Los Angeles mansion and sometimes having weird interactions with strangers”, he almost approaches Curb; with his family dynamic, he can touch on the modern family, but without the constant sports days and laid-back generational wealth. Each episode has a scene where Pamela Adlon makes a big mess in a kitchen. It’s that kind of show.
What really sets it apart is how elegantly it fits into the incredibly popular “drama-comedy” genre (which we’ll soon be moving on from, I promise you: commissioners will be bored) without ever succumb to being too dramatic or too comical. . It’s weird but it works: All dramatic moments are those things that seem huge inside a family as they happen, but never need to be mentioned again: a fight quickly resolved around a table on Saturday, a teenager starting to go in a very different direction, a mom taking too long to sort and throw away her old things. All of the comedy moments are played in cautious minor chords instead of big, booming major chords: in Better Things, no one will ever pull off an explosive scene.
The pacing of this one is so gorgeous too – not the usual “here’s three problems this week, and that’s exactly how they’re all solved, the end!” rate. It’s more cautious, letting stories slip into different episodes as they need to breathe. These technically count as spoilers, but you’ll live: in the first episode of the new season, Sam finds all of his old baseball cards from his childhood, and you expect plenty of nostalgia-tinged drama around it all; in fact, it doesn’t really happen until two episodes later. At the start of episode three, she finds a phone in a parking lot, an event that for other sitcoms would dominate an entire episode (“We have to find that person! Now!” that review really worrying you??” “Forget it! Let’s send that phone back!”), but instead you almost forget it happened – until it works on its own. A large script is shown with a single wordless setup taken from the series’ opening montage and then left again until a quarter of the way through. It’s a wholesome domestic comedy that rewards you for watching it very closely – to say it’s like anything else, as I did exactly a paragraph ago, is a pretty big mistake. severe.
FX is doing a lot of the best comedy-based TV shows right now – Atlanta, Dave, What We Do in the Shadows – and Better Things falls very well into that stable. “I learned from Better Things and other similar things along the way: this very realistic, beautifully shot slow-motion comedy can be just as good and funny as someone slapping a rake on their own face.