In the fifth episode of the new season of FX’s wonderful Better Things, three generations of the Fox family — mom Sam (creator-star Pamela Adlon), grandmother Phil (Celia Imrie), and daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood) — are enjoying a late-night snack and talking about which part of the family Sam inherited her chronic hand pain from. Frankie interjects, “If I ever get the impulse to just strike up conversation with complete strangers everywhere I go, I will 100 percent hold it against you, Sam.”
In the moment, the remark is just another sign of the delicate peace crafted between Sam and Frankie since the end of last season, on a show whose chief interest has long been the exhilarating highs and exasperating lows of motherhood. That remains the focus of much of this fourth season, particularly as Sam adjusts to Max (Mikey Madison) becoming an adult and Frankie and Duke (Olivia Edward) racing to follow their oldest sister. But Frankie’s comment also illustrates another thing that continues to make this one of the very best series on television: Sam’s interest — and, thus, the show’s — in the lives of people she’s just met.
If you’ve been lucky enough to watch the show to this point (previous seasons are on Hulu now if you haven’t), you know the drill. Sam will be on a film shoot, or out shopping, or on a plane, and find her attention caught by a new person. They’ll begin to chat, and for a few relaxed, lovely minutes, Better Things will set aside the story of Sam — who has always been a thinly-disguised version of Adlon(*) — to let someone else tell theirs.
(*) In earlier seasons, we saw King of the Hill (where Adlon played Bobby Hill) playing in the background of a scene, while a fan of Sam’s once mentioned a cartoon called Ching of the Mill as his favorite role of hers. This season, Sam gets called in to talk about a Ching of the Mill revival, with a cameo by King of the Hill co-creator Mike Judge more or less as himself, but it’s clear that these are meant to be different shows. So if you want to figure out who plays Bobby Hill in the Better Things universe, I cede that mad quest to you.
The best of the new installments FX gave critics, Episode Six, doesn’t feature Sam’s girls at all. Instead, it’s her in New Orleans for the destination wedding of a friend she made last season, during one of those impromptu conversations with strangers that Frankie finds so mortifying. The episode’s a love letter to the city, and devotes a fair amount of time to the midlife crisis Sam is struggling to contain throughout the season. But large swaths of it are devoted to characters we either barely know, or who have just been introduced, and they feel just as rich and full of life as the ones involving Sam’s family or more familiar friends.
Even before Sam hits the Big Easy, Season Four is peppered with similarly random and vibrant encounters. In the second episode of tonight’s two-part premiere, for instance, Sam’s new electric car runs out of juice in the middle of nowhere, and she seeks the help of a local mechanic played by the great character actor Lance Henriksen. The guy’s only onscreen for a couple of minutes, and given barely any dialogue at all, yet Henriksen’s performance and Adlon’s typically assured direction implies an entire autobiography. Also, their interaction as he shows off his beloved muscle car is charming as hell.
Scenes like that, or vignettes where Sam is hanging out with old pals like Rich (Diedrich Bader) or Jeff (Greg Cromer), are often much more pleasurable for Sam, and for the audience, than when she’s dealing with the girls or Phil. This seems by design. Acting pays the bills, but motherhood is Sam’s true profession, and one she has to take part in on both the good days and the bad ones. (The girls all have good moments, but the bad ones are so realistically, agonizingly bad that they risk putting the entire concept of procreation into doubt.) And the feeling of intimacy and empathy in the parenting scenes remains superb, particularly during a Sam-Max argument in one episode that involves every woman’s least-favorite word. But it’s not a coincidence that both Sam and Better Things often seem lighter and happier when she gets some grown-up time, turning her gaze outward to learn about other people’s triumphs and heartbreaks.
Season Four of Better Things debuts tonight on FX. Episodes will also be available to stream the next day on Hulu. I’ve seen the season’s first six episodes.