Episodes of Better Things are like short lectures on life. They’re like reading a quick chapter in an extensive philosophy book. Every time it’s on, I feel like I’m learning something about my existence I never knew before. Or maybe I already did, but the show is reminding me that I have forgotten my morals and my values and need a good kick in the ass. They’re like a big warm hug, episodes of this show, except that after the hug is over, it stares you deeply in the face and tells you what’s really important.
We return to our second season with a long, wordless, almost silent shot of Pamela Adlon’s face looking aimlessly off screen. She looks bored, exhausted, almost emotionless. We then cut to a wide to find her on the toilet bowl. In a bit straight out of Louie, she stands up, pants and underwear at her ankles and starts unclogging the toilet, then the episode starts.
At first glance, I wasn’t sure what to make of this opening. Having been slightly disappointed by the final two episodes of the first season (though the season as a whole was one the best seasons of TV from 2016), I initially thought the disappointment was to continue – that this premiere episode was opening with a silly bit for no other reason than just to be random and gross. But after she exits the bathroom and we see that she’s holding a party – a party where everyone seems to be talking privately to one another, and not eating any of her food, or enjoying her home pleasantries – it made more sense. And I rewound it because I wanted to watch it again.
A quiet, lonely room like the bathroom is the only place in her house she can go to just be by herself and not be exhausted. A few minutes sitting on the toilet saying and doing nothing is of so much value to Sam (Pamela Adlon) at this point in her life that she’d rather poop in silence for a moment than go out and force herself to make meaningless small talk with strangers and distant acquaintances. This might be my favorite opening to any episode of the series so far, and it’s fitting because this is also one of, if not the best episode of the series as a whole up to this point.
This second season premiere, titled “September,” is essentially an extended montage of disconnected conversations that eventually lead to one big ending thesis. None of them are wildly intriguing, but all of them generally engaging. They’re filmed in a way that puts the viewer comfortably in the chair next to everyone in the room, or on the end of the couch, enjoying the casual party chatter along with everyone else.
It continues to be a show that asks the viewer for their patience, and lets them soak in the environment and the people in it before really getting into anything having to do with story. Episodes are usually just over 30 minutes (including commercials) and sometimes 4 or 5 or minutes will go by without anything actually happening. Only this show could afford to be as experimental and deliberate as this show is on the network that it’s on.
“Okay, but what is the episode actually about? Like what happens in it?” you ask. Well, after we’re all settled in and we catch up with where every character’s been since the finale of Season 1, we discover that Max (Mikey Madison) is involved in an underage relationship, with her being 16 and her boyfriend Arturo, played by Arturo del Puerto, being 35. Most of the episode’s latter half follows Sam’s pursuit to break them up, all the while Arturo’s younger brother Pedro (Erich Wildpret) is going after Sam in hopes of getting her to have sex with him (his exact quote his “Are you open?”).
It’s a simple, straightforward conflict, and, I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion is probably what you expect, but in a good way. Wildpret and del Puerto do an excellent job of developing these two strangers into completely annoying and unlikable dimwits by the end of the episode, and in the final scenes when see them for the last time (hopefully forever, but knowing this show, probably not), we’re glad to see them leave.
“September” is a quintessential Better Things episode in that while nothing really happens in terms of character development or overreaching story arcs, we get a nice little short story, and we get to see where our characters have been since we’ve been with them last. While Duke (the great child actress Olivia Edward) and Frankie (Hannah Alligood) seem to be doing a-okay, Max has entered her late teenage rebel phase and Sam just isn’t having it. Surely this will be an ongoing thread throughout the season.
The episode is a nice little catch-up. It doesn’t throw us into anything major, but it gives us a little taste of what’s likely to come.
What makes the episode so great and what holds it together so easily, particularly when there’s not much happening, is Pamela Adlon’s directing. Now, the show’s star also directed two episodes last season, and, truth be told, those were among the weakest of the season. They felt stilted and awkward and definitely like the work of someone who needed more time in the director’s chair.
Now, almost in a flash, her skills as a director, have drastically, drastically improved. The narrative and the overall structure is this episode is likely the best it’s been in the entire series.
Adlon always keeps her camera at a medium distance, never seems to move it unless the characters themselves are also moving, and it’s edited in a way that feels like a bunch of scattered memories in your head playing out in a (seemingly) random order trying to tell you something. One advantage here I think is that, to my memory, most episodes of this show take place over the course over a few days, with occasional stops in time for longer, drawn out scenes. This episode takes place – spar one flashback – all in and around Sam’s house and over the course of only one evening. Probably 6 or 7 hours at most, if I had to guess.
This more confined setting and a tighter time frame allows the episode to be more welcoming to the viewer in terms of waiting for something to happen. The first quarter or so of the episode is basically just glimpses and passing glances at conversations being had by party goers. Some of them go on for a while, and some of them get cut short. Some of the eventually lead to confessions and revelations that become a part of the story, and some of them are just there because they are there. A lot of this show is just people being people, and sometimes that’s what the show does best.
The pacing is flawless, the narrative structure and editing is rock freakin’ solid, and as usual, every performer is on the top of their game, namely Madison and Adlon (there’s a quiet, tender scene in a laundry room between Max and Sam that almost tops last season’s terrific, emotional shopping mall mirror speech).
According to an article from Variety, Adlon is directing every single episode in this season. When I first heard about this, I was a little worried, given her blunders last season, but now I could not be more excited. She has proven herself a greatly improved technical craftswoman, and, if this episode is evident of anything, a brilliant storyteller.
This episode was also the funniest episode we’ve had in a quite bit, too (both Adlon and Exec. Producer Louis C.K. wrote this episode). My personal favorite dialogue bit was in the beginning:
Sam to Frankie: “Where’s your sister?”
Frankie: “Which one?”
Sam: “The shitty one.”
Of course we don’t find out who “the shitty one” is until later, but it’s still a funny line nonetheless and Adlon’s comedic banter with her daughters back and forth is just as sharp as it’s ever been
Honestly, there isn’t a wrong foot put forward this entire episode. I can’t think of a single complaint – not even a super duper small one. It’s honest, down to earth, and authentic in that great Better Things way. It’s back in full form, with Adlon masterfully crafting some truly unique television storytelling and gearing us up for what I suspect will be another terrific season.
OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10
Better Things Season 2 airs Thursday nights on FX.