You’re not going to find a more emotionally satisfying family comedy this season than FX’s “Better Things.” It’s the more contemplative sibling to the likes of “Young Sheldon,” as Sam Fox raises three daughters alone while keeping an eye on her failing mother, who lives across the street — and in another world.
The stories are minimalist wonders, as Pamela Adlon — the star, director, writer, and, with Louis C.K., co-creator — delivers fragments of her characters’ lives in LA with as little exposition as possible. It’s a less-is-more situation, as we’re thrown willy-nilly into the close focus and raw immediacy of each scene, through which only the essential pieces of backstory emerge. In one miraculous episode this season, about the very ordinary wanderings of Sam’s mentally deteriorating mother, Phyllis, played as a shard of glass by Celia Imrie, Adlon unearths entire worlds of meaning — about aging, about mothers and daughters, about the idea of home. Called “Phil,” it’s an iceberg episode: Look below the surface and you’ll see immensity.
One of the moments in another episode of this comedy of small but reverberating moments is among my favorites of the year. It occurs in the third half-hour of this season, called “Robin,” so named after Sam’s new love interest. The whole episode turns on one particular moment, an exchange between two adults on a date, which arrives at the tail end of the episode; but its significance extends well beyond the parameters of a TV show. The exchange across a restaurant table contains a wealth of wisdom about human relationships and self-awareness. It also looks straight in the eye of stunted masculinity, a quality that now, in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the countless #MeToo stories, has added resonance.
After a sweet first meeting at an awful spoken-word event, Robin — played with calm appeal by Henry Thomas — spontaneously invites Sam for a weekend excursion to wine country. They hardly know each other, but they have a lot of common ground — including single parenting and divorce — and tons of chemistry. Sam impulsively accepts the offer, and they share a magical day sipping wine and looking out at majestic views. At one point, Sam asks Robin where they’ll be staying overnight, and he clams up. He wants to keep the location secret, in order to slowly unfold a romantic day for his new love interest. But she needs to know, so she can call and reserve a separate room for herself.
Robin is wounded. He interprets Sam’s wish for her own room as a rejection — and as some kind of challenge to his manhood. “This is a bit of an ice pack to my balls,” he says — or, rather, whines. He quickly becomes a pouting child, a little boy who isn’t getting his way. The day takes a bad turn, as Robin sinks further and further into his sense of inadequacy and defensiveness and Sam begins to act like his mother. Of course, Sam wants the room because good fences make good neighbors, because boundaries — especially in middle age — are healthy, because she wants the relationship to work out. As she puts it, she wants to “take a little pressure off.” But Robin is stuck, lost in himself.
Things can’t get any worse over dinner, when suddenly Robin seems to wake up. “I’m really sorry,” he says out of nowhere to Sam. “It’s killing me that I did that,” he explains, noting, “You were really looking out for us.” He fully owns his weakness, and he asks for Sam’s forgiveness. “You know when you see yourself making the same dumb mistakes over and over again?” he asks. She does. He requests a do-over, and, in the big grace note of the interaction, Sam gives it to him.
It’s a moment that speaks of a lifetime of growth, an aspirational moment for anyone who hopes to evolve into a peaceful soul, a moment in which a person has gotten to know himself well enough to intervene on his own worst impulses. Those harmful old impulses — to compromise yourself, to alienate those you love, to stomp on your own dreams, to be a baby — never really stop; but at a certain point, like Robin, you begin to understand that you don’t need to act on them. As a knowing adult, you are free to let them go.
There’s a lifetime of therapy in the exchange, both for Robin, who saves himself, and for Sam, who’s willing to try again. The characters have struggled in their lives, each with their own issues, and they are saner, happier individuals for it, whether or not better things are in store for them as a couple.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.