A review of “The Unknown,” this week’s Better Things, coming up just as soon as I show you a copy of the Fiddler on the Roof cast album…
For Season Three, Better Things dropped its original opening credits sequence scored to John Lennon’s “Mother,” opting for a shorter one where the song frequently changes. The season certainly hasn’t forgotten that Sam is a mom, and that she considers that role the most important part of her identity. But the focus much more often has been on who she is when she isn’t with her daughters. We’ve spent extended time with her at work, first filming Monsters in the Moonlight, and here as part of the impressive cast(*) for a reading of a new play called Skewered(**). And we’ve gotten more stories about Sam’s sexual desires — even if most of them are ones she resents (Xander), is wary of (David Miller) or simply doesn’t understand (Mer).
(*) The series has occasionally let guest stars play themselves in the past, like Julie Bowen’s appearance in the pilot episode. But it felt a bit different to have all of Sam’s co-stars — Mark Feuerstein, Holland Taylor, Gabrielle Ruiz, Jon Jon Briones and Norm Lewis — all playing themselves. (Some are explicitly called by name while Feuerstein is allowed a self-deprecating joke about how his recent CBS sitcom 9JKL had a terrible title.) It’s an effective way to convey the kind of company Sam is in, but I also wonder if Adlon and company decided it would be more trouble than it was worth to craft fictionalized personae for this many recognizable actors who were playing actors.
(**) Is Skewered supposed to be good? Sam and Feuerstein initially assume it’s not, and Trevor the director seems insufferable at first. But the audience at the reading is enthusiastic, and by the end of it the actors have, as Norm promised they would, drunk the Kool-Aid regarding the material. But by giving us only brief snippets of the script, both in rehearsal and at the public reading, the episode neatly sidesteps the Studio 60 Problem (where a work of art the characters insist is great clearly isn’t) and turns the thing into a Rorschach test. It’s only as good as you want it to be.
Sam’s work and sex lives collide in “The Unknown,” thanks to Mer arranging her role in Skewered. The show has been very careful at avoiding predatory lesbian cliches with Mer. Though she does enjoy, as Tressa warned Sam weeks ago, flipping straight women, she also doesn’t push where she’s not wanted. (As a professional parallel, she also shuts down whenever Sam in any way invites her to criticize Tressa or offer to replace her as Sam’s manager.) She wants Sam only because she can tell Sam is interested in her. When Sam starts disingenuously suggesting otherwise, it’s a huge turnoff for Mer, who’s clearly been through this kind of gaslighting before. Better Things is almost always on Sam’s side, but its sympathies in that moment are clearly with the other woman in that conversation.
The episode opens with Sam at the Friar’s Club, where Durham (Griffin Dunne), the son of Murray Fox‘s old comedy partner, introduces an illustration of Murray that will receive an honored place on the club’s wall. (Murray’s ghost is, of course, there to receive a high-five from his daughter on her way out the door.) Durham wonders if his mom ever slept with Murray, which Sam doubts, if only because her dad was so scared of Phil’s wrath. More pertinent to the rest of the story, though, is what happens after Durham’s much younger girlfriend Ruth shows up. Sam is, as you’d expect, both annoyed and amused by this girl’s presence, and even more after Durham insists that he wasn’t looking to date someone in that age bracket.
In the moment, Durham’s the one who seems full of it. In hindsight, though, his lament to Sam neatly parallels her own struggles with her attraction to Mer. Whether he really tried to avoid a woman Ruth’s age or not, his description more or less matches Sam’s response to Mer. When she realizes that Mer is staying in the same hotel and will be at the reading, she’s adorably flustered, even scared in a way we’ve never seen her before. But the heart wants what it wants, even if the mind doesn’t understand what’s happening, and soon Sam is inviting Mer to come drink with her and the cast after their triumphant performance. Mer, who had been planning to go work in her hotel room, understandably takes this as a signal that Sam is ready to move beyond flirting, and is understandably hurt when Sam tries to deny what’s happening between them. It’s one of the perils of being a woman who’s attracted to women who are usually attracted to men, but it still stings. And even Sam — who’s usually happy to bulldoze over people who are emotionally crowding her — looks guilty after Mer leaves.
What follows is a pretty dazzling combo of acting and filmmaking from Pamela Adlon. In one continuous take, we sweep around the bar where the cast is partying. First, we’re just enjoying the actors belting out “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. (It is, appropriately, a song performed for a woman who refuses to love the singer back.) Then the camera pivots around to see how many of the bar’s patrons are dancing and/or singing along to the Broadway standard, before finally landing on Sam, lost in thought. She is the only person in that place not having a good time (even the ones not paying attention to the song are shown in the midst of animated conversation), and her mind is entirely on how she bungled things with Mer. She could be a million miles away from here, because the situation with Mer is not at all on the street where she’s lived her whole life. She walks towards the exit, looking like she might be on her way to apologize, but no.
Instead, she takes out her phone to send David — with whom she’s clearly been in communication since their therapy sessions ended — a simple but evocative two-word sext: “Let’s go.” Two episodes back, she rightly avoided kissing the guy because the situation didn’t feel right. Now she’s throwing herself at him as a way to deny her feelings for Mer. It’s bad juju for all involved, and even Sam seems to understand this. As she returns to her spot by the piano and enjoys the song’s climax, her eyes are filled with tears at more than just the vocal gifts of Gabrielle and Norm.
TV has become a bit too dependent on oners these days, but it’s powerful here because we feel completely in the moment with Sam as her emotions swing so wildly. She’s terrified of the unknown, terrified of hurting herself, ashamed of hurting Mer (and possibly of the romantic mess to come with David), but she can’t stop herself.
One of the reasons Sam defines herself primarily as a mom is that it’s the role she’s best at. She’s a fine actress, too, but the further she and Better Things both stray from her relationship with her daughters, the less secure and the more self-destructive she becomes. The path she’s put herself on doesn’t seem like a good one, but if it’s portrayed with the care we got this week, I’m okay to see Sam suffer for my art.
Previously: Spring Awakenings