A review of the Better Things Season Three finale, “Shake the Cocktail,” coming up just as soon as I do my one-word impression of John Lithgow…
There are two musical performances in “Shake the Cocktail,” which brings a superb season of television to a close. The more formal one involves Frankie — who has temporarily left home to couch surf with friends — and her choir singing “Shake It Out” for a churchful of proud loved ones. It’s used the way songs are often deployed in climactic TV and film moments: as an emotional summation of what’s happened before and an accompaniment to glimpses of what’s going on with lots of people. So we not only see the concert, but hear the song continue as Sam and Rich make up after a fight earlier in the finale, get a montage of moments from throughout the season (like Sam taking Max to college) and see Frankie return home briefly to give her mom a 50th birthday card and avail herself of the family bathtub.
The more striking performance comes earlier, and is much more impromptu. As Sam continues to wallow over Frankie’s ongoing absence, a Phineas and Ferb episode starts playing on the kitchen TV. Sam starts wistfully singing along, and — inspired by David‘s advice to focus on the two kids who are still happily living under her roof — goes upstairs to prompt Max, Max’s friends and Duke to all sing it with her. It is an explosion of joy from everyone present. The older girls loudly hit the spoken word parts, too (as any kid who sings along with the delightful theme to that delightful show will), giddy to be reminded of something they loved when they were Duke’s age. Duke’s happy to see they still love it as much as her. And Sam? Sam is in tears enjoying this throwback moment, but also thinking about the girl (who surely also loves Phineas and Ferb) who isn’t there.
It’s an incredible moment, even more emotional than last season’s concluding dance to “Tilted” (which occurred on Max’s birthday, rather than Sam’s). It turns an innocent kids cartoon(*) theme into a “Sunrise, Sunset” moment, illustrating the extreme highs and lows of parenthood in one loud, catchy burst of music. It’s everything Better Things does so perfectly.
(*) Albeit a wicked smart kids cartoon that I may or may not occasionally watch when my kids aren’t present. Also, Pamela Adlon has done voice work for both Phineas and Ferb and its creators’ follow-up, Milo Murphy’s Law.
The non-musical portions of “Shake the Cocktail” — named after the catchphrase of Murray Fox — are more uncomfortable, by design. One week after Frankie was largely on her best behavior, this is her at her coldest and most entitled. Other characters defend her absence to a degree, noting that she goes through big emotions and sometimes just needs space. But there’s that and there’s behaving the way she does. She refuses to communicate with her mom. She turns off her phone’s location services. When Sam tracks her down at a tutoring session and Frankie’s friend Obsidian goes out of her way to inform Sam about what’s up, Frankie obnoxiously blames Sam for harassing Obsidian. The show itself isn’t really defending Frankie — that all of her friends are keeping Sam apprised suggests that everyone understands Frankie has taken things way too far — but most of her scenes, down to her brief return to the house, were tough to sit through because Frankie has no clue how in the wrong she is.
Then again, Sam’s no angel as the big 5-0 approaches. She’s a bad friend to Rich, giving him a hard time about his much younger new boyfriend Alan (who seems both nice and funny when he joins Rich at the recital). She’s still with David, simultaneously treating him as boyfriend and therapist, and he’s going along because his hormones are outweighing his sense of professional ethics. Even the bit of business where she tells off the younger mom at the cafe (“You guys suck!”), while funny, is also a reminder that Sam’s older daughters didn’t get their more abrasive qualities from nowhere.
But Sam is always trying. This third season — made, remember, without the show’s co-creator, whose name was on every script of the first two years — tried to expand the boundaries of what the show could do, and be. And it largely succeeded. Stories were a bit more serialized. Even before the “Shake It Out” montage, there’s a sense of closure on a lot of story points: Sam is still in this emotional mess of a relationship, Phil has forgotten Sam’s birthday (which Sam, oblivious to how bad her mom’s dementia is getting, writes off as more bad parenting), Max has clearly been forgiven for dropping out of college, etc. The season also expanded its focus beyond Sam as a mom, spending significant chunks of the year on her work, her friendships and her sex life, and hitting each subject with the same delicate touch and artistry it brought to its central subject.
That the girls were downplayed in the season’s middle section could have undercut the power of this concluding rift between mother and daughter. But in all the jobs she does on the show, Adlon has a clear sense of what she wants to do and how to find the emotional truth in a moment. We don’t need to have watched her and Frankie go at it all season to understand how we came to this point, or how hard it is on Sam. It’s a show of moments, even when things were slightly more plot-heavy this year. And those moments, like the Phineas and Ferb singalong, can be transcendent.
Murray ‘s ghost closes the season asking his daughter what she intends to do next now that she’s lived longer than he did. I, for one, can’t wait to see whatever that is.
Previously: Slam Chops