“Mother, you had me, but I never had you.”
The joy I feel when watching FX’s Better Things, is more astutely experienced than it is explainable. To give a little insight into my life: I was raised by a single mother in a household consisting of my younger brother, my two younger sisters, and myself. When we’re out in public, we tend to draw stares and attention because we draw out the kookiness and absurdity in each other that typically lies dormant when around others. My family moved from Cincinnati, OH to a small southeastern Indiana town back in 1996, and we still to this day, are affectionately viewed as “funky” outsiders. This association has cultivated in me an appreciation for strange family dynamics that do not seem to fit in the standard sitcom household. So when FX started advertising Better Things, featuring Pamela Adlon, (the woman behind the voice of Bobby Hill from King of the Hill), I was already sold.
Following an already standout performance as Pamela on Louie, Adlon exemplifies the tenacity and intricacy of what it means to be a single mother in the modern age. To address the elephant trunk in the room, I am thankful that Adlon and FX’s response to Louis CK’s sexual misconduct is to continue the show with CK removed from the program (in all capacities including: writing, directing, and production). I won’t speak to the greater complexity of this recent upheaval of Hollywood’s sexual predators, (that is a subject for another, and more solemn article), but I will say that Adlon’s statement on the matter can be praised just as much as her Better Things’ semi-autobiographical character, Sam Fox. To express such heartache alongside anger about this issue is a genuine reaction, and Adlon is nothing if not genuine. It is a shame, however, that an article praising such a standout show needs to include a disclaimer on the very nature of its existence. But CK’s departure can now be seen to mirror the departure of Sam’s own ex-husband within the show. Adlon may have conceived this show with CK, but just as Sam does not need the help of her ex, Xander, to raise her girls, Adlon doesn’t need CK for Better Things. Custody battles tend to favor mothers, but in this case, there’s no question.
I would never claim Better Things to be the first program to showcase dysfunctional, yet loving, siblinghood, but I’d say it’s pretty damn close to being one of the most accurate portrayals. For anyone who has grown up with siblings, Sam’s three daughters are extremely relatable. Her eldest Max, played with manic mood-swings by Mikey Madison, is constantly facing crises of quickly reaching “adulthood.” Her middle child, Frankie, quizzically realized by Hannah Alligood, approaches every issue methodically in her quest to find her place in both her family, and society. And her youngest daughter, Duke, played by the adorable Olivia Edward, is still at an age where she uses her mom’s affection as a shield against her older siblings, and as a veil for her own discoveries of self-awakening. I have been, and have all of these siblings, and I know their joys and sorrows.
Better Things excels at representing each daughter’s woes as both extremely relevant and completely dismissive. I’m sure everyone can relate to some issue that seems to be the most important dilemma in the world, only to mature and realize that the situation in question was entirely inconsequential. On the flip side, I admire and respect how poetically Better Things understands the wonders of growing up. In the penultimate episode of the second season, (“White Rock”), Duke’s understanding of her heritage and privilege is made manifest through physical specters that visit her throughout a family vacation. At the end of the episode, Duke confronts a vision that may or may not be several things, (including her deceased great aunt or the representation of the death of her childhood). She expresses concern for the apparition, hoping it is well, and reassuring it that she isn’t fearful. While this is a brief recounting of a great many events that take place during “White Rock,” it is just one example of how reverently Better Things treats each character’s growth.
Not only does Better Things manage to accent each member of the Fox family’s growth, it also does so in a way that focuses on their humanity within their womanhood. Their names alone, speak volumes to their strengths as characters. Foxes are animals known for their cunning nature, and momma Sam Fox won’t let anything happen to her cubs that they can’t handle. Better Things doesn’t shy away from the nature of womanhood – periods, menopause and vaginas are all topics out on the table – but by giving each member of the family a unisex name, the show strips each woman of their societal chain. Even Sam’s mother, Phyllis, is called Phil. Better Things subverts gender norms without sacrificing its femininity. In “Arnold Hall,” Sam and Frankie attend a bar mitzvah for a friend of the family. In an atmosphere celebrating a boy becoming a man, Sam and Frankie test each other’s limits by pranking each other both physically and verbally. Arguably, these two are the strongest intellectually within the family, and Frankie is having a go at disarming her mother. The episode uses the backdrop of masculinity to emphasize these characters’ strengths to such a degree, that you forget anyone else is in the room. That’s how loud this show lets women be.
While the two younger daughters certainly get their dues, this second and most recent season, is bookended by episodes that feature the relationship between Sam and her eldest, Max. The beginning episode, “September,” takes place during a party held at casa de Fox. Max, who is initially too proud to ask for help, flits throughout the party, showing off her much older, adult boyfriend Arturo. During a seminal moment of the party, Max sheepishly asks her mom for help in dumping Arturo. She is loath to admit, she can’t handle it. Arturo is simply too old and difficult for Max to break up with herself, and she needs Sam’s assistance. It’s evident that Sam doesn’t mind seeing her daughters squirm through most of the episodes, but she thrives the most when defending and protecting her daughters. So in the last episode, “Graduation,” when Xander bails on Max the very day of her high school graduation ceremony, Sam is right there to pick up the pieces. Gradually throughout the season, we see the three daughters start to pay Sam with more and more respect. But in “Graduation,” Max finally realizes that while she has been leaving a door open for her dad to come back into her life, Sam has been making sure that there would be others waiting and ready to walk through that door. Surrounded by biological family and chosen friend-family, Max finally sees to what lengths Sam has gone to ensure her daughters are loved and fulfilled in all aspects of their lives.
In the final scene from the season two finale, Sam, Frankie, Duke and Phil, reenact a dance from Christine and the Queen’s music video for “Tilted.” This is their gift to Max upon her graduation. The dance brought me to tears as Max watches in awe. Max receives several physical tactile gifts from others, but it is this expression of love and dedication, that is the best gift of all. It isn’t often that viewers get to see the Fox family exist without some kind of turmoil taking place, and the fact that they could all manage to come together to rehearse and perfect this dance is heartwarming in and of itself. The lyrics, too, deliver a powerful message: “But I'm actually good; can't help it if we're tilted,” is the reassuring chorus, followed by a bridge stating, “I'm doing my face with magic marker. I'm in my right place: don't be a downer.”
The Fox family is an unconventional one, not unlike my own family. I know firsthand the difficulty in coming to terms with those differences, and learning how to tell the world that yeah, we’re okay too. Just like the song insists, I haven’t always had the right tools for the job, but my family has made do with what we have. As a white cis-woman, I cannot complain about a lack of representation individually, but Better Things speaks to me on a familial level better than almost any other television program I’ve ever seen. At the end of both seasons so far, Adlon leaves an inspiring message: “Dedicated to my daughters.” Similarly to Pamela’s (and Sam’s) girls, I know what it’s like to have a mother who dedicates everything to her children. I am so thankful for this show and I look forward to seeing the story progress in these upcoming years, maybe even more so, in light of recent events. It may take a man and a woman to conceive, but as far as Better Things is concerned: she is Pamela, hear her roar.
Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.