Why Better Things Deserves the Chance to Keep Going

5 minute read

The season finale of Better Things, one of TV’s very best shows, aired Thursday night on FX. The creative work of the actress and director Pamela Adlon, this was a show whose subtleties often brought me to tears, a show about a mother whose love for her children made her heart burst even as her frustrations with the limitations parenthood had placed on her world made her head explode. Better Things explored the tension between love and annoyance beautifully in the finale, in which Adlon’s onscreen daughter graduates from high school, both moment-to-moment ungrateful and deeply loving — and in which Adlon put on a dance routine to celebrate her daughter whose earnest, unvarnished display of painfully unhip emotion was the point.

This rare, sensitive depiction of a sort of protagonist who rarely gets airtime even in today’s crowded landscape had untold rewards for the viewer. But for many, the future of the show is complicated by the offscreen reality of Louis C.K.’s involvement with the series. The show’s co-creator, the comedian is credited as sole writer or co-writer of every episode of the recent, superlative second season. C.K. has been fired from the show and all others he produces with FX after admitting to the sexual misconduct first reported by the New York Times. (Adlon, in a statement, described herself as “devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behavior by my friend and partner.”) The show is Adlon’s work, as much as it is now caught up in the admitted misdeeds of C.K. But C.K.’s actions, including intimidating and silencing women — and the nasty, misogynistic tone of aspects of his comedy, which many are now re-evaluating — seem to originate from a wholly different world than does Better Things. That C.K. had such a hand in a season of television that beautifully depicted the struggles and pains of a single mother is vexing. Even so, the show deserves to get a chance to move forward without him.

Other projects bearing the C.K. imprimatur—from his film I Love You, Daddy to the upcoming TBS series The Cops—have been aborted or suspended. And, to a degree, that’s a response that makes sense: Certainly, the film, which I have seen and whose ugly academic debates of statutory rape would play horribly at the multiplex, deserved its fate. And C.K.’s comedy specials for HBO, for instance, are no longer available on HBO platforms, just as The Cosby Show disappeared from streaming. But it would be especially unfortunate if that happened to Adlon and her singular work. The scrappy, powerful Better Things delves into a rich set of emotions, defined through the perspective of Adlon, an actress, writer, and director who had worked on Louie but who, here, was the star of the show. She directed every episode of the show’s second season, and brought to it soulfulness and soul-deep work.

Who knows what happens in a partnership between two artists? As a viewer of both series, Better Things shared a basic template — semiautobiographical comedy about an unmarried parent in the entertainment industry — with Louie, but the similarities ended there. As I wrote after C.K.’s firing, his own much-loved autobiographical series Louie never compelled me because the question it asked, how one can be a loving father and also a man who tends to dislike women, was so inert and simple. Even before his public fall from grace, it was hard for me to laugh at his often nasty presumptions about male-female relations.

But this show has for two seasons now told a story of sensitivity and of rage — Adlon’s character minces no words in her repeated tellings-off of men who are unworthy of her. If in the alchemical process between two longtime collaborators, C.K. brought some of his earned self-loathing into the scene in which Adlon angrily derided a date, who suffers for that? It’s a story portrayed and directed by a woman, one that’s part of a longer narrative of pain and love in which C.K.’s general nastiness has little part. He may be the self-styled “difficult genius,” but she is the author. When men even a bit like C.K. arise in Better Things — whiny, exploitative, looking to Adlon’s character solely for sex or for some version of companionship that’s more centered around sex than they’re willing to admit — they’re dismissed.

The now-dormant careers of women too intimidated by the real-life C.K. to continue working in comedy are grievous losses. One wonders what some of the women in the Times piece might be doing had they not, in big ways and small, interpreted the story of their lives to mean that comedy was a hostile place in which they had no part. It does no good to add another career, one just beginning to really flourish, to that list. It seems unfair to so condemn Better Things, and not merely because C.K. is no longer associated with the show going forward (if indeed it has a future, which I hope it does). I have no idea whether Adlon would even want to keep it going after the departure of her collaborator, or if FX will renew it. But I’m hopeful her vision will allow her to keep exploring this story. Better Things can’t erase its past, but what was onscreen was more Adlon than C.K. Outside of its most prominent collaborator’s shadow, Better Things has a chance now to keep proving the brilliant, sad, feminist work of art that it is.

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