No show is more alert to the innate selfishness of children than Better Things, the loosely autobiographical FX comedy from star and co-creator Pamela Adlon. A slice-of-life series that remarkably distills the essence of its protagonist’s (affluent, semi-bohemian, drained-to-the-bone) existence into mood-driven vignettes, the critical darling never feels realer than when Adlon’s Sam, a single parent and working actress, contends with one of her three difficult daughters. The trickiest is eldest Max (Mikey Madison), a teenage brat whose explosive temper and conspicuous beauty—not to mention the slimy males it attracts—drive Sam crazy in equal measure. The most impressive is middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood), a precociously political, possibly genderqueer loner on a mission to find her mother’s weak spots and brutalize them as efficiently as possible. The sweetest is elementary school–age Duke (Olivia Edward), the baby of the family who Sam can relax the most around, but whose innocence is occasionally revealed as an act to curry her mom’s favor.
Currently in its third season, Better Things is dedicated to Adlon’s own daughters—affectionately, notwithstanding the fact that Max, Frankie, and Duke (the older two, especially) are frequently monstrous in their narcissism and thoughtlessness. In the show’s first episode, Max sulks because Sam won’t buy her weed: “Don’t you want me to have clean, organic pot? You should want me to have good nugs.” Frankie sneers in Season 2, “Actresses have a shelf life, and I’ve got to hand it to you, it is astonishing how long you’ve been able to stretch it out. You’re working well beyond your expiration date.” At the end of that season, Max asks her mother to throw her a party, complete with underage alcohol—and for Sam to not attend. As she usually does when her daughters demand the preposterous, Sam relents. In a different episode, Max apologizes for being “a total bitch lately.” Sam’s response falls neatly within the lines of her pushover parenting style: “That’s OK. I can take it.”
Better Things was co-created and heavily influenced by Louis C.K., whose own Louie explored the dating and parenting travails of an entertainer in formally loose, episodic bursts. Like his artistic hero, Woody Allen—hold the jokes, please—C.K. garnered sympathy for his misanthropic, lovelorn protagonist by making him the only reasonable man left in New York.
Similarly, Better Things frequently frames Sam as the only adult in the room, dutifully bound to wrangle her three wayward kids, as well as her gently unhinged mother Phil (Celia Imrie). Hers is a story of maternal martyrdom, of nailing herself to the cross every day if it brings another half-second of joy to one of her children.
All of which makes the central question of Better Things: Are Sam’s daughters to-be-tolerated pains in the ass, or are they spoiled hellspawn whose mild sociopathy is never acknowledged by their mom? Adlon’s portrayal of the trio isn’t one-dimensional; every so often, the show features moments of tenderness and gratitude toward Sam from her daughters. But the majority of the scenes with Max, Frankie, and Duke—and Sam’s willingness to silently put up with whatever bullshit they fling at her—makes Adlon’s fictional persona less like the everymom she’s clearly intended to be and more a victim of her own making. We’re supposed to relate to Sam’s willingness to give until she’s got nothing left, but that’s hard when all I wanna do as a viewer lately is scream at her, Grow a spine! Learn what boundaries are! It won’t traumatize your kids if you yell at them once in a while!
Yes, teenagers are notoriously tough to parent. Yes, every parent has their own child-rearing approach. But the more times that Sam lets her daughters walk all over her and declines to explain why their behavior crosses a line, the more I wonder if we’re watching a show about a frazzled mom or a hostage who doesn’t realize she can free herself, if only temporarily. I’d like to root for Sam, and everything about Better Things makes it clear that that’s what I’m supposed to do. But fair or not, it’s hard to believe in someone who won’t help herself.