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‘Better Things’ Season 3 Review: Pamela Adlon Steps Up

Thanks to the confident guidance of its co-creator and star, on whose life it’s loosely based, the FX family dramedy is stronger than ever the third time out

Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in 'Better Things.'

Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in 'Better Things.'

Pamela Littky/FX

“Your mother may be the greatest mother in the world,” Sam Fox’s brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) tells her youngest daughter midway through the new season of FX’s Better Things (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET). “She’s crazy and a complete pain in the ass and annoying, but she loves you and she would do anything for you. And the most important thing in the world — the most important thing — is that she’s there. You wake up, she’s there. You go to sleep, she’s there. You need her, she’s there. You don’t need her, she’s there. Even when she isn’t there, she’s there. She will always be there. And that is all that matters.”

Sam Fox is played by Pamela Adlon, who co-created Better Things and heavily based Sam’s life and career on her own. Like Sam, Adlon has three daughters, is not exactly famous but recognizable, and makes a lot of money off voice work (in the new season, a fan tells Sam how much he loved her in “Ching of the Mill”). And like Sam, Adlon is seemingly always there, an actor since her teen years in the Eighties. The series is about many things, including motherhood, friendship, aging and messy relationships, but underlining all those topics is a core theme: the value, and the challenge, of simply showing up. Sam’s there for her kids Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), for her friends, her co-stars and her imperious and inappropriate mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), even when these people don’t appreciate her — even when it’s exhausting. And time after time, this sharply observed, heartfelt, absolutely wonderful dramedy illustrates how much her mere presence ends up mattering, even though Sam herself is a disaster who frequently screws up everything else in her life.

You could choose to define the new season by an absence, since it was made without Better Things‘ disgraced co-creator Louis C.K., who wrote or co-wrote nearly every episode the previous two years. But Adlon — who continues to direct each episode and has at least a shared writing credit on most of the season’s scripts — is still here, and it’s still a thinly veiled version of her own life. Her steady presence informs not only the stories but the series’ warm yet sarcastic tone.

Season Three is a bit more serialized than the show used to be: Sam is cast as a lead in a potential summer blockbuster (and hates every minute of it, because acting is just a job to her, and the movie’s director is awful at managing people); Max goes to college; Phil continues to age less than gracefully; Sam seeks the counsel of guest star Matthew Broderick (and Adlon draws out his most relaxed and confident performance in years). But each episode feels like a compelling short story, or a collection of theme-linked tales, toggling between topics both deep and juvenile. (Sam preps for a colonoscopy with a night on the toilet, then grapples with her mortality as she waits for the results.) And the atmosphere feels so lived-in and inviting — even when the girls are being awful, which is most of the time — that this newfound emphasis on plot feels like a bonus for getting to spend time in Sam’s company.

When Max prepares to leave her mom to party with her new college friends, Sam says, “I want my big This Is Us-milestone-moment goodbye hug.” But Better Things feels so much more artful than even a very good network family drama that we don’t need the hug to fully appreciate what mother and daughter feel.

Because almost every scene either features Sam or has characters talking about her, there’s a risk of the series feeling like Adlon’s love letter to herself. But Adlon gives her fictionalized stand-in clear and observable flaws. And if she just wanted the series to be a celebration of her own awesomeness, well, it’s great enough that she’s earned that right.

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