"Better Things" focuses on Sam, a single mother and a working actor who lives in Los Angeles. Sam is tired. She yells a lot. Her life as a single parent and a single woman is complicated, messy and funny. With its charming and honest look at an imperfect life, "Better Things" is a situation comedy worth your time.
Overworked and usually overwhelmed, Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon) is raising three girls: Teenager Max (Mikey Madison), middle child Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and youngest daughter Duke (Olivia Edward). Unlike most depictions of children in situation comedies, these kids are often hard to like. They take Sam for granted. They whine and they are selfish. As characters, they allow Sam to express emotions not typically found in situation comedy mothers, namely anger, frustration and disappointment. When 16-year-old Max coldly accuses Sam of working because she wants to be famous and abandoning her ex-husband, Max's father, to a destitute life, her reaction is a satisfying dressing down of her daughter, as she sets her straight. It's a confrontational scene, unusual for a sitcom, and it's not the show's only one.
But along with the heavier scenes between Sam and her kids are moments of joy and Adlon demonstrates great emotional range. She's also funny and her dry take on some of the absurd situations Sam finds herself in, whether it's with friends, coworkers or her mother, is a pleasure to watch.
Life is full of mundane moments and "Better Things" does a great job of depicting them in a way that elicits recognition and a laugh. Who hasn't found themselves, as Sam does in one episode, walking through the house staring at smoke detectors trying to figure out which one is emitting the low battery beep? The show takes it to the next level when Sam's actions accidentally bring emergency services to her house and Frankie starts screaming that she needs to call Dad to talk to the firemen. Sam's response is to start screaming back that she is capable of speaking to the men at the door.
The show isn't afraid to tackle subjects that are glossed over or ignored in other portrayals of women on sitcoms. When Sam takes the stage during a women and girls' empowerment night at Frankie's school, she has everyone in the room acknowledging their menstrual cycle or lack of one. The episode begins with Sam at the gynecologist getting an exam and hoping the doctor is going to tell her that she has started menopause.
The show is at its best when storylines give Adlon the chance to showcase Sam's vulnerability and sentimentality but still maintain an edge. When Sam tells off the stoner husband of her best friend Sunny, you wish she was your best friend too. When she gently calms Max's fears about the future, she gives her a tender speech that suggests life is good even when it's not.
"Better Things" offers a different voice for both womanhood and motherhood and it's one worth paying attention to.
Season one of "Better Things" is available on the FX website: www.fxnetworks.com.
-- Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.