Inspiring passionate devotion among its fans, if not overwhelming viewership numbers, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is ending its five-season run as a masterpiece of unreal realism. Lumped in at first with the other observational auteur dramedies that briefly flourished in the wake of Louie’s success, Better Things has always fit uneasily in that category—and that was before Adlon underwent her own public reckoning with her longtime collaborator and the show’s former executive producer. Overshadowed by C.K.’s infamy and outshown by its more viral peers, Better Things has always been better than its imperfect comps might suggest. Yet, despite happily occupying the margins of various televisual trends, Better Things was also the perfect show of its moment. Debuting just as anxieties about an increasingly crowded and chaotic TV landscape were reaching a fever pitch in the industry, with streamers proliferating and new original series flooding an already overburdened discourse, Better Things took advantage of the possibility that it might go unnoticed. It reveled, as Adlon recently put it, in its own invisibility. No show has better embodied the past few years of television, its indulgences and its innovations, the doors it opened and closed, its forgetting as well as its unearthly memory. And there may never be another show like it.
In 2015, FX president John Landgraf, whose annual appearances at the Television Critics Association’s press tour have earned him the nickname “the mayor of television,” prophesied the coming of what he called “peak TV.” There was, according to his network’s massive data-gathering project, “simply too much television,” an unsustainable glut that he predicted would crest within the next year. Like most prophets, he was wrong, at least about the date. This year, FX’s research revealed an all-time high of 559 scripted series broadcast in 2021, a 5 percent increase from the previous year. Landgraf has admitted repeatedly that he was “woefully wrong,” but he still contends that the peak is coming, and we’re going to drive right off it.
But peak TV has become much bigger than a failed prophecy. The “problem” Landgraf identified—an ever-expanding archive of television, physically unwatchable to anyone not permanently stationed in front of a screen, Clockwork Orange-style—has only intensified. But rather than remaining tied to an End Times narrative, peak TV has come to stand in for a boom-time era of television production and consumption, one defined less by a small canon of Officially Great Shows and more by a crowded, chaotic marketplace where good series struggle to get seen, bad series routinely hijack the discourse, and works of absolute genius occasionally disappear before even getting a chance in the spotlight. As Slate’s Willa Paskin noted shortly after Landgraf’s initial pronouncement, “peak TV has caught on as a description more than as a warning, and that’s because it’s perfectly expressive. There is an insane amount of good television out there, and like Everest (and far lesser climbs), it can be genuinely overwhelming.” Paskin’s prophecy turned out to be more apt than Landgraf’s. Rather than collapse in crisis, like a lot of other institutions in the years since 2015, television has just continued to live in a state of emergency.
But the signs of the end just keep popping up. This week, for instance, Netflix’s stock has begun to plummet amid news of dwindling subscriber numbers and suggestions of an ad-supported option for the service. But this news has not been limited to the business end of the streamer’s operations. The Wrap published a long expose about the bumbling inequities of Netflix Animation, and critics and commenters have been scandalized by the revelation that the newest season of Stranger Things cost $30 million per episode while writers and creative professionals feel underpaid and unsupported. This may not be the end of Netflix, and perhaps these problems are unique to that platform—HBO Max, for instance, announced boffo subscriber numbers this week—but if you’re looking for signs of the peak TV apocalypse, you could do worse.
Right around the time that Landgraf was declaring the bubble about to burst, FX ordered the first seasons of Adlon’s Better Things and Donald Glover’s Atlanta,both of which debuted the following year, and AMC premiered its Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul. In different ways, these three series are all emblematic of the moment they emerged—and, not incidentally, they’ve all begun their endings. Better Call Saul, which started its final season this month, is a perfect example of one of the prevailing peak TV logics: Make more of what works. But it’s also a rare creative success in that mode. If the “too much TV” ecosystem allowed oddballs like Better Things and Atlanta to emerge, it also gave birth to dozens of copycat shows looking to draft off of prestige TV hits, a roiling ocean of Ozark blue. Better Call Saul was absolutely one of these: a spin-off of a canonically Great Golden Age Anti-Hero drama, focused on a minor character. But Better Call Saul is less retread than a revision. Lots of critics have come around to the opinion that it’s the better show, and, as Aaron Bady recently argued, part of that is because of the way it self-consciously reckons with criticisms of its source material. It’s not just a spin-off; it’s a second draft.
Landgraf’s approach in greenlighting Atlanta and Better Things was different. If one of the foibles of Peak TV was the proliferation of prestige rip-offs, then here were two series that literally could not be replicated, could not be reproduced, so reliant on the idiosyncratic vision of their creators as to be totally singular. Atlanta, in particular, publicly flaunted the idea that it was the nearly unmediated hallucination of its creator Donald Glover. Absurdist, prankish, both attentive to and dismissive of the conventions of the sitcom form, Atlanta was a shock to the system. The mythology of Atlanta’s development and production—most notably laid down in a famously blustery New Yorker profile of Glover—presents Glover as brilliantly fooling a risk-averse white network executive into greenlighting his surrealist epic, but it also presents Landgraf as more than willing to be fooled in that way. The piece quotes Landgraf as saying, “The parts you’re going to think are too weird—lean into those.” Regardless of how much is legend and how much is fact, the story from both Glover and Landgraf was that Atlanta was simply whatever its creator wanted it to be. (It’s worth noting that Atlanta’s fourth and final season on FX will be Glover’s last with the network—he’s already begun a production deal with Amazon.)
Just as it is with Glover, Adlon’s conspicuous creative freedom is a visible element of her show. And something both share, in contrast with their densely plotted peak peers, is a lack of interest in narrative momentum. Neither tethered to the resolution of a specific overriding story, nor limited by the ceiling of a concrete premise, both series, it seemed, could have just gone on and on. But neither will.
In the years since Better Things’ arrival, the melancholy half-hour comedy series has flourished. Reservation Dogs, I May Destroy You, and Fleabag represent some of the best TV of the past decade, and new series like Somebody, Somewhere, Life & Beth, and Work in Progress show the continuing potential of the form. But Better Things is different: meandering but structurally complex in deceptive ways; deeply tied to the singular point of view of its star and creator; willing to unflinchingly center aging women, invisibilities literal and figurative. Will there ever be another show so unburdened by plot and premise as Better Things?
Better Things’ heirs are hardly elaborately plotted puzzle box series, but, compared to Adlon’s shambling, lyrical show, they feel positively fussed-over. There’s a scene in this final season in which Sam Fox, Adlon’s character, receives a consultation from a Feng Shui expert about the layout of her house. The man moves from room to room, speaking in sometimes flaky, sometimes eerily prescient aphorisms about what he sees. He suggests a new way of arranging the space, improving its flow. But Sam resists, because the mess, organized in ways that only fully make sense to the people who inhabit it, is what makes it hers. The thing that’s been most striking to me, watching these stunning final episodes, is how much Better Things resembles its central domestic space: cluttered, every corner burdened or beatified by memory, packed floor-to-ceiling with detail. There’s the five-season arc about youngest daughter Duke’s ability to see ghosts, the five-season arc about middle child Frankie’s gender identity, the five-season arc about eldest Max’s need for independence. None of these are pressing plot points, mind you, none need resolved. They’re just kind of … around.
Adlon’s writing and direction—she’s directed every episode since the second season of the show—are, as much as anything, an act of curation. Each character, each plot point, each set piece, each LA space are like beloved objects strewn about Sam’s home, and as the show accumulates them, they belong to us viewers as well. To shriek in delight when a bit character from seasons earlier walks through the frame, to audibly gasp when a statue at the top of Sam’s staircase breaks—to watch Better Things is to live with these people. The show has a hoarder’s sense of narrative value. Nothing is unimportant, everything matters.
The immateriality of the streaming era is scary, especially for critics and scholars of TV. Film preservation can be a disheartening undertaking, but at least there are films to preserve. The reality of a lot of the most beloved and important TV series of this time is that they could disappear forever in the blink of an eye. But, even so, sometimes I imagine a romantic fantasy of Peak TV. All these artists made all this TV that nobody has time to see, and most of it is mediocre, and some of it is bad, and only a very little of it is paid attention to—but, lurking in there somewhere, are works of lasting genius. Maybe they weren’t fully appreciated in their time, or appreciated only by the faithful. But what Peak TV does is create the condition of their possibility and an archive in which they might reside. And maybe one day, years in the future, someone will find this lost object from a very specific time that bears all these markings of love and care, and they’ll press play, and everything in it will be alive again. What if the medium did peak, just not the way they said it would?
Correction, April 28, 2022: Due to a photo provider error, the photo on this article was miscredited to Suzanne Tenner. The photo is by Lara Solanki.