The third season of “Better Things” is currently airing on FX — and, judging from the first few episodes, the show continues to be the best show about motherhood on television. As a mother of two, I’ve always loved the show’s willingness to highlight the hardest, most frustrating aspects of motherhood: a contrast to the usual overly optimistic TV representations of mothers. On the show, co-creator and director Pamela Adlon stars as Sam, a working actress raising three daughters on her own, whose own aging mother lives just across the street.
So often, mothers are portrayed as either perfect, self-sacrificing martyrs — I love “Jane the Virgin,” but the title character is a perfect example of this archetype — or as horrible, selfish monsters — see Monica Gallagher on “Shameless” or Adora Crellin on “Sharp Objects.” There are few nuanced representations that allow mothers to be both loving and sometimes selfish and petty, both committed to their kids and frustrated with all the unpaid, unrecognized emotional labor we’re expected to do.
What I find so unique about “Better Things” is that it doesn’t idealize Sam.
Season 3 represents a new era for the show, which was co-created and co-written by Louis C.K. In 2017, following a New York Times story, C.K. admitted he had engaged in sexual misconduct and was fired from his FX projects. Adlon was left to pick up the pieces, she recently told Vanity Fair, and rebuilt the writers’ room. “Change is extraordinarily good,” she said.
Thankfully, despite C.K.’s absence, the current season has continued to do what it did so well in Season 1 and 2: It unabashedly highlights the “unattractive” aspects of being a middle-aged mom. The very first scene of Season 3 is something I imagine most mothers have experienced, and yet I’ve never seen it on TV: Sam is trying on a bunch of different clothes and realizing that none of them fit anymore.
But instead of a spiral of self-hate or a comment about needing to go to the gym, her reaction is matter-of-fact, resigned; it’s simply, “I’ve gained weight.” Remarkably, there’s no value judgment about her weight gain. Representations like this counter the pervasive fat-phobia in our society, which for mothers is reflected in the expectation that we “lose all the baby weight” as quickly as possible after giving birth. For example, even in a show like Netflix’s “Workin’ Moms” — which focuses on the difficulties of balancing work and motherhood — the very overwhelmed main character, Kate, still somehow manages to run with her baby in a stroller and prioritizes workouts in her incredibly stressful life.
“Better Thing’s” refusal to reinforce the idea that moms have to “do it all” isn’t new to the show, though — it’s been doing this all along.
Season 2’s remarkable episode “Eulogy,” which was hailed by some critics as one of the best episodes of TV in 2017, is one of myriad examples. In general, the show tends to employ an episodic structure that shows us vignettes of Sam’s life rather than one continuous cause-and-effect narrative. In this episode, we see two instances of Sam at work as a hustling actor. First, she’s teaching an acting class; later, she’s shooting a car commercial. This is the tedious, unglamorous work that most working actors must do. We watch as she delivers take after take of her one-liner in the commercial.
Later, Sam’s at home with her kids and best friends watching TV. When an old commercial of hers comes on, her eldest teenage daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), immediately changes the channel. Sam is justifiably irked that her kids are unimpressed by seeing their mom on TV. And when she makes a comment, Max and her middle daughter, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), selfishly disregard Sam’s feelings. Sam’s friends tell her that the girls will appreciate her when she’s dead. Sam responds, “I don’t want to have to wait until I’m dead for my kids to appreciate me.”
Sam’s frustration leads her to concoct a role-playing scenario, in which she’s dead and her older kids have to eulogize her. The episode ends on a moving note: Her daughters talk about how proud and protective they are of their mom.
The episode was widely relatable for moms like me, I assume: We often feel unrecognized or underappreciated by our kids (and partners). Just a few weeks ago, I was on the University of California at Berkeley campus with my kids, and I told my 6-year-old son that this was where I had gotten my PhD. He was completely uninterested and repeated something he’s said a few times in the past: You’re not a real doctor. (This misconception — that only MDs are “real doctors” — is of course widely held within our larger society.)
I was hurt by his lack of admiration for my years of hard work and accomplishments. While intellectually I understood that at this age, kids are supposed to be self-involved — and that my son often says these things to test me — emotionally it still felt like a gut punch. It was an unrealistic expectation, and yet that’s how I felt. And it’s why “Eulogy” rings so true for me.
Was it appropriate for Sam to ask her kids to eulogize her before she was dead? Probably not. But Sam isn’t a martyr, nor should she be expected to be one. It is Adlon’s willingness to show moms as complex — not only dedicated to their kids, but also flawed, bitter and passive-aggressive — that makes “Better Things” such an incredible show.
In another recent episode of Season 3, we see a similarly less-than-flattering portrait of Sam. The hilarious sequence takes place at the back-to-school night event of her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward). There’s a clear role reversal going on: Duke, who is in elementary school, is basically parenting Sam, who is anxious and clingy and desperately trying to avoid making small talk with the other parents. Meanwhile, Sam has a series of awkward, even hostile conversations with the other parents, all of whom bicker like children. The episode ends with Sam picking a literal I’ll-see-you-on-the-playground fight with a mom whose son had previously hit Duke with a ball. Duke’s over it, but Sam hasn’t let it go.
A final aspect of “Better Things” that feels meaningful with regards to the experience of motherhood is the fraught relationship between Sam and her aging mother, Phil (the inimitable Celia Imrie), whom Sam is caring for. It is, of course, common for mothers to simultaneously care for their children and their parents. Much of the time we see this relationship through Sam’s eyes, but sometimes the perspective is shifted: In a later scene of the first episode of Season 3, Phil is playing cards with her elderly friends and they start complaining about Sam and their middle-aged kids.
This is a throwback to an episode of Season 2, “Phil,” which is shot entirely from Phil’s perspective. The opening scene features Phil bad-mouthing Sam in every way possible — that she always complains about being a single mother, that she only gets two-bit parts as an actor, and that she isn’t really caring for Phil.
In an Emmy-worthy performance, Imrie moves through a wide range of emotions. After the comically delusional monologue about what a failure Sam is, we witness Phil losing her sense of self. After a trying day, she’s so distressed that she harms herself by intentionally falling into a manhole. However, much like in “Eulogy,” the pain and familial conflict result in greater intimacy: After her accident, Phil reverses every spiteful thing she said about Sam, telling her daughter that she loves her, is proud of her, and is grateful Sam is caring for her.
It is this special mix of comic irreverence and pathos that defines motherhood in “Better Things.” The show homes in on the mundane disregard most moms face from their kids — plus the added difficulties of caring for aging parents — and the ways we don’t always handle these situations gracefully.
We aren’t super-human; we make mistakes; our feelings get hurt. Sometimes we lash out. And, although it’s considered sacrilege to admit that our kids are sometimes jerks, that’s the truth. It’s why “Better Things” is still one of the best shows on TV — and it’s what makes mothers like me feel seen.