How Better Things got too mean
In season two, the FX show gets carried away with unlikability
Sam Fox is unlikable. Pamela Adlon's character in Better Things — the semi-autobiographical FX show she created, writes, and directs — heckles her dates. She calls men "buddy" and smirks at them, amused by their interest. She speaks slowly to people, as if she thinks they themselves are slow. Yet her churlish disposition shouldn't be a problem. Thanks to series like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Fleabag, I Love Dick, and Transparent, an unlikeable woman isn't the TV taboo it used to be.
But the second season of Better Things didn't click for me, and it's partly because Sam's devil-may-care attitude to public opinion doesn't ring true. In fact, it feels like the show cares very much about aligning our sympathies with Sam — to its detriment, because there's only so much pity one can muster for a successful woman who owns two houses, has the means to hire housekeepers, and nevertheless sees herself as a beleaguered, unappreciated underdog.
To be clear, there's nothing wrong with a protagonist demanding pity from the viewer; it happens all the time. But to the extent that dramedies like this one have become a genre, they usually serve as occasions for unflattering self-examination. The protagonists tend to be charismatic but flawed. Better Things won't really concede that. Or risk it. Even though Sam does some pretty unappealing things — like publicly berate a guy for being needy (his crime was asking whether she came) — it feels like we're supposed to think Sam is funny and cool, even at her most abrasive. The character's bemused superiority toward everyone feels less like an invitation than a constraint; I feel my nose being rubbed in the fact that she's refreshing and down-to-earth, while her mother (played by the great Celia Imrie) is pretty awful, and her daughters don't appreciate her enough.
There's an unacknowledged gap, in other words, between the pity for Sam the show structurally demands and its in-universe assertion that she's awesome and independent, her daughters are magical, and anyone who gets to hang out with them is lucky indeed. These things might be true — sometimes they really are! — but the show asserts them so insistently that the effect is more irksome than persuasive. It doesn't help that a lot of the pity the show elicits for Sam is a function of the daughters being demanding brats. This makes them hard to love.
Nor do the episodes or seasons really develop into arcs. An episode last year raised the question of whether Frankie (Sam's middle child) was transgender. The question seems to have been dropped. Other scenes never quite acquire a narrative angle that makes them legible. A party scene at Sam's house features Frankie and a friend singing a song while the guests look on. It felt cringe-inducing to me; I initially took it for an interesting examination of the embarrassment a parent feels when a child's performance goes too long. But the direction is just indeterminate enough that it's possible Sam totally approved and was listening, rapt. Another episode has Sam meeting a recently divorced friend's new boyfriend and storming off for reasons that aren't quite clear. Nothing comes of it.
The first season didn't feel this fragmented or sealed off. Individual episodes felt like vignettes, but they had a shape that let the viewer in. This might be partly because the show spent more time exploring Sam's professional life: "Brown" explored the weird intersection of Sam's work life in Hollywood with her domestic reality (and racist mother), and "Woman is the Something of the Something" weaponized the show's uneventfulness: Sam was up for a role in a sitcom and never found out about it. It's the kind of non-event that managed to be poignant partly because Sam never knew what she'd lost, and partly because it modeled a very specific kind of friendship.
I'm aware, in writing this, that this just boils down to a matter of taste — Adlon's strategy as a creator mimics her protagonist's dating behavior, which is pretty hermetic. Sam does not seduce. She thinks she's terrific, she's tired of being nice, and her working assumption is that anyone would be lucky to have her. She's not necessarily wrong.
The trouble is that if you don't automatically assent to the show's assumptions, the series doesn't have much to give.