In Better Things’ fifth and final season premiere, creator Pamela Adlon’s alter ego Sam Fox and her middle child Frankie meet friends for sushi. They’re celebrating Frankie’s buddy Brigham’s (Aidan Harman) acceptance to Harvard, and Brigham’s mom Fredericka (Angela Kinsey from The Office) starts reminiscing about the adventurous existence she gave up to raise her son. “I had a whole, big life,” she marvels. “And it’s astonishing to me that now he’s going to be gone and I don’t really know what I’m gonna do.” Tears flow, and by the end of the meal she’s falling-down drunk on sake. As Brigham drives everyone home, she curls into fetal position in the backseat, her face pressed against Sam’s shoulder, murmuring “I’m scared.”
Like so many moments in Adlon’s free-form FX dramedy, the vignette is sad and funny, blunt and tender all at once. And its focal point is the inner turmoil of a person whose feelings rarely get much consideration. Better Things, which returns on Feb. 28, could just as easily be titled What About Mom? For four mesmerizing seasons, Sam—a self-described “working actor” and divorcée with three daughters, though Frankie might not identify as a girl—has struggled to care for her kids and elderly mother, Phil (Celia Imrie in a lovely, under-appreciated performance), with no one around to take care of her. The fifth, an ideal culmination of everything that came before it, uses this premise as a filter for Adlon’s valedictory meditations on personal history, family bonds, mortality and, above all, the constancy of change.
The streaming-driven spike in serialized TV has led to the widespread acceleration of story lines and the compression of narratives into bingeable, contained miniseries. But Better Things, which debuted in 2016 and underwent an unanticipated, largely positive metamorphosis after the departure of disgraced co-creator Louis C.K., has never been in much of a hurry. The show moves at the pace of domestic life, lingering over shifts in the Foxes’ world that wouldn’t register in a Shonda Rhimes or David E. Kelley drama but feel seismic to regular, though distinctive, characters.
Several such transitions are underway in the early episodes of season 5. Sam, who’s run into some financial difficulties, must scrutinize the indulgences of her wabi-sabi lifestyle—and decide whether she should quit an acting job that makes her uncomfortable despite needing the money. Now in her early 20s, eldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison) faces choices that push her toward maturity. Frankie (Hannah Riley), who graduated high school early and now works at a grocery store, continues to grapple with identity, and with hot-and-cold feelings toward Sam. Once a happy-go-lucky mommy’s girl, 13-year-old Duke (Olivia Edward) has descended into the depths of teenage misery. “I don’t feel connected to anything,” she confesses to a best friend who’s frustrated that Duke has become such a bummer. Phil seems restless; she’s manipulating and clinging and undermining Sam’s relationship with her daughters even more than usual.
Amid the flux, everyone has their preoccupations and secrets. Better Things has often alluded to the way that we live in the past, present, and future simultaneously, but history comes to the fore this season. While Sam and her brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) explore their family tree, Phil reconnects with old friends from England via the internet and Max moves into an apartment where Frances Farmer once lived. Everyone seems to be hiding something from Sam, including close friends like Rich (Diedrich Bader) and Sunny (Alysia Reiner), because she cares so much, and tends to react so dramatically, that nobody wants to provoke one of her freakouts. Adlon’s character sometimes came off as unbelievably self-sacrificing in early seasons, and although the show can still occasionally be a bit too reverent of her warmth and openness, those qualities have since been balanced out by the extremely relatable shortcomings that make her human. She nags, she’s bad with money, she nags Marion to help her learn about money.
Death, the only long-term certainty for any of us, permeates these episodes, although not in an overly maudlin way. There are graveyards and scattered ashes, as well as flashbacks to the complicated relationship Sam had, as a child, with her late father Murray (Adam Kulbersh). There’s also a Zoom funeral that includes a deeply inappropriate, laugh-out-loud funny dance to Billy Ocean’s “Caribbean Queen.” When the show turns its attention to mortality, it’s with the arch, absurdist sensibility of the Monty Python songs that pepper the season’s soundtrack.
Death is, after all, just one more transition for which most of us are woefully unprepared. Duke may be the only Fox who’s still, chronologically, a proper adolescent, but if there’s a unifying theme to these final episodes, it’s that life is a continuous adolescence—and then you die. Whether you’re the kid going off to college or the unmoored mom weeping into her unfiltered sake about it, you’re doing something you’ve never done before. It has been such a pleasure to watch this family grow up, and so illuminating to witness, through their eyes, how that process never ends.
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