A review of “Holding,” this week’s Better Things, coming up just as soon as I take your paper clips…
Sam Fox has two jobs in this world: actress and mom. Better Things tends to emphasize the latter, establishing that the former is just what Sam does to pay the bills. Whatever magic Hollywood might have had for her (or for Pamela Adlon) as a kid has long since been overwhelmed by the frustrating realities of the business. Perhaps most exasperating of all is the way that Sam has learned to treat it as, well, a job, while so many of the people she works alongside are overgrown children enjoying their expensive sandbox.
Much of “Holding” takes place on the set of Sam’s latest project, a summer blockbuster(*) called Monsters in the Moonlight. (It’s the script she was reading on the flight home from Chicago in the premiere.) Because Sam has been around forever, she has friends in every production (one of them, played under heavy monster makeup as is his trademark, by Star Trek: Discovery‘s Doug Jones), which is a nice perk. But the director, Tibor, seems too busy flirting with crewmember Nikki (True Blood‘s Janina Gavankar) to have a proper handle on the set, which leads to Sam and others suffering in the unrelenting desert heat.
(*) It looks much cheaper than that because, well, this is a low-budget autobiographical comedy series, but dialogue in other episodes this season implies that it’s a big studio movie.
The gig does offer one nice perk: a chance to spend time in the company of Sylvester (Charles Robinson from Night Court), the elderly owner of the house that production is using. They have a lovely conversation about his career, his late wife, and all the other aspects of the life that took place in this spacious home, and it seems almost worth the trip for her. At one point, Sylvester suggests, “Sometimes, you don’t get to choose what you’re good at.” It’s a sentiment that rings very true for Sam, who’s gifted enough to still be working at her age in an industry not generally kind to older actresses, but who doesn’t enjoy doing it. (Or at least doesn’t enjoy it under sub-optimal conditions like this.)
Being away for work makes it harder for Sam to be good at her primary job. While she’s on set, Duke gets a flip phone from the girls’ useless father Xander, making his latest half-hearted attempt to connect. She seems guarded against another heartbreak (she rolls her eyes as she imagines him reading the attached note to her); if Sam were present, however, her daughter might never know the package existed. But even when Sam’s home, she’s not at her best this week. At science night at Duke’s school, she can’t let go of a bullying incident involving a boy named Shak, whom Duke insists she’s now friends with. (One of the terrifying and miraculous things about childhood is how easily some kids can shake off trauma and become close with others who were once unspeakably cruel to them.) It’s a situation where Sam really needs to let well enough alone. But between her frustrations about the movie shoot and her basic stubbornness, of course she marches over to confront Shak’s mom (Artemis Pebdani from It’s Always Sunny) and is so aggressive and insistent on picking a fight that Shak’s mom accidentally backhands her son while trying to escape our temporarily unhinged heroine.
It’s a weird moment for the series — less for Sam embarrassing herself and one of her kids in public (which she’s done before) than for that scene being played for laughs. (Even Duke seems more amused than mortified, despite being furious with her mom only seconds earlier.) It’s the kind of deliberately confrontational tonal space Better Things hasn’t gone to that often, and not when moms and their kids are involved.
Because of that scene, and the fact that a lot of the movie production material is setting up later episodes where we return to the set, “Holding” was my least favorite of the episodes FX sent out for review before the season. But it still has that wonderful conversation between Sam and Sylvester.
Previously: University of Hard Knocks