By its very title, what star and co-creator Pamela Adlon’s Better Things has always emphasized is the good in people; the positive things we remember about friendships, relationships, and parenting—oh, most definitely the parts about parenting.
The Emmy-nominated FX dramedy about actress Sam Fox and her life as a single mom to three kids, which is loosely based on Adlon’s own experiences, gets deep into memories in its fifth and final season. Scenes can come out of order and without context or explanation, like you’ve always just had access to someone’s own naturally non-linear thought processes. Eldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison) has left the family nest. But it’s unclear—and thus, we’re led to assume, not important—why or if she’s still supporting herself as a restaurant hostess like she did last season. Sam and her kids love to watch a talent competition so much that she cooks a large spread and prints out ballots so that they can all gather together in front of the TV. The show’s name isn’t mentioned because it doesn’t matter, but we are to take note that middle child Frankie (Hannah Riley) chooses to go out with friends so that mom’s left drinking vodka by herself and crying over some contestant’s cover of Gary Puckett & The Union Gap’s certainly-doesn’t-age-well hit “Young Girl.” Sam’s been cast in a period film that she doesn’t want to do, while references to her past jobs occasionally come up as if we’ve watched all those classic shows on Hulu.
Adlon also seems to have used the final season to let her own fandom flag fly and show support for her own mentors; there’s a scene where Sam geeks out meeting Marty Krofft at a grocery store and Ron Cephas Jones guest stars as a version of himself who knew Sam as a younger actor—given Adlon’s resume, this could be a stand-in for just about anyone.
But what is given laser focus this last season, and every season, are the things that really matter. Youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) comes back from a trip with her garbage human of a father (Matthew Glave’s Xander) deep into a teen angst, and her mom may be too overwhelmed to notice. Although a friend who moved away is visiting, she’d rather spend quality time with a vape pen and her smartphone. Frankie graduated high school early, and doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with not having a career path as making sure everyone understands the detriments of gender labeling. Meanwhile, Max figures out that adulting is hard especially since, at 20, she is not a girl; not yet a woman and feels as if she’s tried and failed at everything. Sam spends more time with her brother Marion (Kevin Pollak), delving deep into their family genealogy and trying to find something that they have in common besides DNA, while also making amends with her late father (played in flashbacks by Adam Kulbersh) and her aging mother (Celia Imrie’s Phil).
And then there are the friends! So many actors, sometimes playing themselves and sometimes not, have been part of the Better Things village this season, just as they have in previous ones: Diedrich Bader as Sam’s bestie and the kids’ guncle Rich; Alysia Reiner as Sam’s long-time friend Sunny; Rebecca Metz as Sam’s manager who is always invited to family gatherings; Judy Reyes and Cree Summer as friends Lala and Lenny. Honestly, over the years, Better Things has become the dramedy equivalent of Law & Order where it feels like every working actor has popped in for a minute or two for some substantial conversation.
This is also addressed in the show’s aesthetic. The house is a museum to people; either old photos of late relatives or peach and pink paintings of faces staring out at any number of kids who routinely come running up and down those stairs or in and out of the kitchen. In this way, even if the house is quiet, Sam is never alone and has an audience.
But is Sam happy? Through the seasons, we’ve seen her as an exhausted parent trying to shuttle between pleasing her family and paying the bills. We’ve seen her angry over her divorce and the financial hardship it inflicted upon her, as well as her learning to let go of that anger (last season’s finale and its swimming pool baptismal scored to R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming” is still one of the most memorable scenes of that year). Sam’s been the only person on film production to speak up about safety concerns (a plot point that resurfaces this season). She’s had dinner parties even though she doesn’t really want to, and seen Max date a pervy older man while knowing there’s no real way to stop her. And we’ve seen her literally tackle her mother to the ground and force her to spit into a tube so that they can do a genealogy test.
So the answer, for a moment at least in one part of the season, is yes.
Because things can change in an instant with kids, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to share a piece of dialogue from the series finale that hit me so hard—and that I think sums up the show so well—that I had to pause my screener and transcribe it. It goes like this, and it’s said by Duke:
“Mom, you’re nice. You know something, you’re a really good person. You are. You have a way of bringing people together and making people feel good. I don’t know. I like it. I like you. I like the way you live your life. (hiccups). I gotta take a shit.”
I have a son and a daughter. I don’t want my kids to remember the times I’ve screamed at them to get off the coffee table. I don’t want them to keep childhood memories of me forgetting school lunches or losing my patience because I’m tired after one of them woke me up at 2 a.m. I want them to remember the fun we had at the beach or when we went for ice cream after school. I don’t want them to remember the bad. No caretaker does.
Nor do I want to concentrate on the show’s formative years and Adlon’s involvement with disgraced comedian Louis C.K., who created the show with her. I want to protect this woman I do not know who may not even need my protection. And I want to believe that the stories she puts on screen are both relatable and uniquely her own voice.
In the end, I want to remember the better things.
The fifth, and final, season of Better Things premieres at 10 p.m. on FX.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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