Pamela Adlon and her Friend Louie Write Shows: Disentangling Better Things (Spoilers)

I am not the sort of person who remembers actors by name. I don’t really care who they are married to or what they do on down time or what their pajamas look like when they run to the store to get cough medicine for their kid. As a watcher of Netlfix and Amazon I enjoy the entertainment, occasionally feel swept up by the emotion of a scene, wonder where I might have seen a face or heard a voice before, and go to bed.

Rarely, I imagine a real and human connection with an actor. Uma Thurman’s response to Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow’s insta fist bump response, for instance, had me feeling like the three of us grew up together listening to Ani Difranco and walking arm-in-arm down the streets of Manhattan. As though I was there with them the day I actually did see them walking down the street arm-in-arm in Manhattan. Usually, though, great performers are instruments of great creativity to me. They can have their human times to themselves.

Comedians are somehow different. The genre of white comedians writing books and making shows based on real lives is the thing. I listen to audiobooks and watch episodes of them, curiously wondering if they are really as racist as they seem or if they are trying to make some sort of statement that is actually commentary on racism. Hoping that I can mind-bend their misogyny into satire. I think I can convince myself well even though there is always a little something sitting at the bottom of my stomach reminding me that I am probably wrong.

This brings us to Louis C.K. Suddenly skyrocketed to international fame by the horrendously idiotic letter of apology he wrote to the women he assaulted, and the lovely mock-up of the apology written by people who actually understand what he did. I read it all unsurprised, even and especially after watching every episode of his show which was all about him. Even after trying to explain away his toxically masculine, body shaming, racist, and generally unpleasant way of depicting the world. ‘Maybe,’ I would think, ‘he is really making a statement on how shitty men are to women about their bodies. Maybe he isn’t really fat shaming this talented and wonderful Sara Baker who is playing his date.’ And then I would let those ugly feelings wash away when struck by raw and gorgeous moments of single-parenthood like the last scene of season 1 when Louie, after having had a failed night trying to be cool at a club but not hearing anything with his old man ears, sits down in a New York diner with his sleepy daughters as the sun rises. Scenes that, in part, tell the story of single parenting and being a person at the same time. Gut wrenching beauty and sweat-making anxiety of loving that much. I expected this and more when I found that a character in his show was going to make her own show with him. A single mother with three children. Hilarious and sexy, and not an image of a typical suburban mom. Yes!

I loved the first season of Better Things. I loved Pamela Adlon’s character of Sam and the personalities of her children Max, Frankie, and Duke (played by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward) and mother (played by Celia Imrie and yes I had to look all those names up). I loved the unexpected rawness of their relationships and the brave ability to place on screen distress of family relationships that most people consider to be private. I loved that the character of her mother was odd and intricate and, in one scene, busily did something strange half naked in the front yard. I swooned over the last scene of season 1 when the mama is trying to connect with her sex interest while also trying to coordinate a complicated morning getting her children to school. After the door shuts on the bustle of family needs, she collapses. Only early and already too tired to continue her sext volley. Instead taking a big breath and leaning back onto the stairs.

In between season 1 and season 2 of Better Things, journalists stopped ignoring the evidence that Louie C.K. assaulted women. Soon it was clear to me and everyone else that those uncomfortable items in his show were likely not at all statements or satire or sharp cultural commentary. They were actually him doing him. Most of us wondered about his daughters. Any of us who have seen Better Things wondered what he wrote and what Pamela wrote, and looked forward with trepidation, to the next show. And when it came, it was epic.

The season starts with Pamela’s character involved sexually with a man we haven’t seen before. Or maybe we have. It’s not clear because he is playing a man that is not memorable. She has unsatisfying sex with him in episode 2 after which he asks her if she enjoyed her time and later asks why she always wants to have sex before their date. She explains that she wants to “get it out of the way” so after the date she can just go home and go to bed. Ah the refreshing moment of real-life comedy for women who have ever dated men like this. The two then attend a party where someone mistakenly calls them a couple. She corrects them. He gets angry. Again, real life moment dating Mr. White Man. We’ve been there. Next though, something really wrong occurs. Sam goes out into the parking lot to leave and the man tells her that she has to find her own way home. She begins to yell at him, calling him out on his entitlement to emotional caregiving. Again, ringing true for anyone who has dated him. Only next, as her voice rises, she begins to call him “she.” “Oh my god. How many ways do I have to take care of this woman?…And…I sucked her dick,” Sam shouts. I watch in the same sort of disbelief I had when viewing Louie talk about women. There has got to be something in here that is supposed to be commentary on misogyny, right? I wonder if Louie actually wrote this part. Maybe Pamela just went along with it. Maybe it will come back around and it will make sense. Maybe she will figure out some funny and smart way to show that calling a man a woman in order to insult him, and using emotionality as a point of anger, are actually subtle forms of violence against women. But it passes and it never comes back. It sits there unpleasantly. An object out of place. I consider not watching any more of the season but my curiosity is strong.

As the season continues I am drawn back in to the beautiful characters and the vulnerability of the family. The child actors are complicated and lovable people and Sam’s dedication and frustration are endearing. Then, out of nowhere, comes the last episode of the season. Max, Sam’s eldest, is graduating from high school. There is a disappointment when her father doesn’t show up, a sweet connection between Sam’s grown up friends and her daughters, a prickly moment or two between Sam and her mother, and some homey scenes that could be anyone’s. Then comes the end. The heart-wrenching, gorgeous end that I can’t stop watching. The end that makes me cry every single time. Max comes downstairs the morning after her graduation and picks at breakfast while shyly asking why her mother hasn’t gotten her a graduation present. Sam points definitively outside and leads Max out to sit on a bench with a blindfold. Then she asks her to remove it. Sam, her two daughters (Duke and Frankie) and her mother are standing on a shiny stage where they perform Christine and the Queen’s lovely song. At the end, Max yells “fuck yeah” and claps and hollers and in that final moment Sam stops and nods with a self-satisfied sexy smile. Yes. This is it. Single motherhood wrapped up into an instant. She got it. She got what Eric Tucker, editor of Plainsongs says about good writing. Writing that, “eschews tired imagery and shopworn language yet still manages to shed light on universal human experiences.” And once again I’m there with her. I want to know her. I want her to know me. And Louie C.K. fades off into the distance.