Tuesday, March 5, 2019

I am obsessed with Better Things and we need more shows like it

The third season of Pamela Adlon’s FX series Better Things started February 28, and it’s exciting to have new episodes of the one show on tv that tells the story of a woman in her fifties. I just wish it wasn’t the only one.

Better Things means so much to me, because although I love a family drama, such as Parenthood, and also a melodrama, such as This is Us, and to a lesser degree, a comedy, such as Modern Family, those shows aren’t anything like real life. I enjoy watching Gilmore Girls with my 16-year-old daughter as well, but, let’s be honest, that is pure unadulterated fantasy of idyllic mother/daughter relations. And also, none of the above portray what life is like for women my age. No movies do it, either. It’s not news that in Hollywood, you can either be young and dewy, a mature 40-year-old plumped up with injectables, or a granny. Women in their fifties are all but invisible, unless someone wants to make a dumb joke about hot flashes.

Adlon called Better Things a comedy in an interview in The New Yorker, but though there are funny moments, I don’t think comedy is what drives the show. Each episode is like a day or a week in a life of a cool fifty-something single mother of three daughters who is also working as an actress and constantly cooking delicious looking, elaborate meals for her family and many hip friends. It’s a poetic collection of vignettes of all the things I, a 57-year-old mother of two with a sputtering career, have been going through. Oldest child heading off to college, check. Menopause, check. Aging eccentric mother, check. Colonoscopy, check. Grandma having another fender bender, check.

Created by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K., who left after the second season for obvious reasons, the show draws on Adlon’s life as a single parent of three daughters whose own mother lives next to her, just like on the show.  “Sam Fox is me in a cape,” Adlon told Terry Gross in her interview for Fresh Air.

As far as I am concerned, Pamela Adlon is Pamela Adlon in a cape. She is a superhero to me because she has managed to so accurately and sensitively and dare I say, sweetly, capture the essence of what it is to be a woman in the sixth decade of life, dealing with all the stresses and irritations and yes, joys. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for something, anything, that showed a woman of my generation having the life experiences I am having, until this show came along.

Sam is so real because she doesn’t always handle challenges perfectly. Her mom, Phil, really pushes her buttons. (Fun aside: all the women in this family have traditionally male names; the daughters are Max, Frankie and Duke.)  Phil is a handful; she gardens naked, makes tactless comments and is a hoarder with some cognitive issues. Duke, the baby, says to Sam: “Mom, no offense, but you’re kind of mean to Gran.” It’s true. Sam can be out and out horrible to her mother. Towards the end of season one, Sam, with breathtaking cruelty, decides not to take Phil away for the weekend after all, just as they are exiting the driveway with suitcases in the back. As Phil briskly returns to her house, Sam sits in the car. “I suck as a daughter,” she says. “I suck as a mother.” Oh, honey, I’d like to judge but I can’t. Because I’ve been there.

And dear God, the kids. Max, the oldest, screams “I hate you” at her mom, voice shaking furiously, with realistic regularity. (The bit part of Max’s friend, the evocatively named Defiance, was played by Adlon’s oldest daughter Odessa.) Frankie is rude and has some typical middle child issues. Duke, the baby, is the sweetest, but even she, in a game of Truth or Dare, makes one friend scream “penis!” in the middle of her mother’s party, and forces another to put a Monopoly hotel in a place that a Monopoly hotel should never go. (I didn’t think that particular scene was necessary, and I’m just going to go ahead and assume that that was Louis C.K.’s doing. I will say that what I’ve seen of Season 3 has less of the sometimes gratuitous raunchiness of the first two seasons.)

So the kids do the things kids do, like announcing an immediate need for a “dress from the forties” minutes before it’s time to leave for school. Sometimes, Sam gets it right, but she also falters as a parent, because she’s human. During a party, Sam asks Frankie, “where’s your sister?” Frankie inquires “which one?” Sam’s answer, “The shitty one,” is not exactly straight from a parenting handbook. But it’s hilarious. When Frankie gets in trouble for using the boys’ bathroom, Sam is mostly annoyed that she has to interrupt her day, a day that seems to have phone sex as its main objective, and it’s Max that enlightens her that the matter needs her attention. “Mom,” says Max. “Frankie’s a boy.” Sam sinks to a bench in the kitchen, cluelessness giving way to realization.

We see Sam noticing the changes to her body, a slight thickening of the mid-section and the “I feel bad about my neck” issues that Nora Ephron elucidated in her writing years ago. Yet the physical signs that she has spent five decades on this earth are secondary to what’s really important. After Max frets that she’s been wasting time getting high and being social and doesn’t have an idea of what she’ll do with her life, Sam has the perfect response. She lets her know that she’ll figure out her purpose, but even if she doesn’t, that’s ok. “You’re still going to love your life,” she says, “because life is good.”

Adlon is at her best when she depicts the small miracles that will emerge from the chaos of daily responsibilities when you least expect them. A word of wisdom from a homeless woman, real talk with an elderly widower, a well timed fart from Phil that gets Sam out of answering Frankie’s question of why she divorced her dad.  These moments even show up for we women in our fifties. As Sam says sort of inappropriately when she gives a talk at a “Women and Girls Empowerment Day” at Frankie’s school: “We all bleed and we all suffer and the bleeding stops and we still suffer.” We exist. As the kids say, “representation matters” and we want to “feel seen.” So please put us in more tv shows.