For someone who rose to prominence thanks to the power of her voice, Pamela Adlon is remarkable at being silent. The actor, who won an Emmy for voicing preteen Bobby on King of the Hill and has been a key creative force on Louie, brings her whole self to Better Things, now in its second season on FX. And while the series will get your attention for the antic comic sensibility–Adlon’s character Sam, a single mom, is besieged by the demands of her family–it’s in the quiet moments where the show finds a center not quite like anything else currently on the air.
Since the first season, Sam, always under a fair amount of strain, has grown more frustrated. Her three kids (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward) are growing into further moodiness and her mother (Celia Imrie) into further senescence. Sam’s not afraid to unload: yelling at a date whom she’s slept with but doesn’t really like, botching a weekend away with a man she seems to like a bit more. As a performer, Adlon can play many notes. But she tends to like discordant ones. Crucially, it’s men for whom she saves her deepest ire. No matter how challenging her relationships with her children or mother are, they’re also sustaining.
Better Things seems to have shed any extant similarities to Louie, the other parenting-centric FX comedy, whose creator, Louis CK, produces the show. By developing a far more nuanced understanding of family life, Better Things has become entirely its own thing. Directing every episode and grounding its complex emotional beats with a thought-through performance, Adlon comes as close to a pure auteur as TV gets. That her story is one imbued with both sadness and light makes Better Things one of television’s very best shows–in any genre.
This appears in the October 09, 2017 issue of TIME.