Thursday, September 8, 2016

REVIEW: 'Better Things' - Sam Won't Get Duke Earrings and Doesn't Want to Know About Max's Life in 'Sam/Pilot'

FX's Better Things - Episode 1.01 "Sam/Pilot"

Meet Sam Fox.

"Sam/Pilot" is just a really simple and low key introduction into the world of Better Things. It doesn't set out to overly explain things. Sam Fox is a single mother raising three daughters and working as an actress. That's all the explanation necessary. It doesn't try to create a big plot in order to throw its characters into conflict. Instead it finds its storytelling groove simply by depicting the mundane realities of being a parent. This premiere doesn't follow a traditional comedic pattern. It starts and stops stories at abrupt and weird times. All of it is done with purpose. But there is a nicely appreciated looseness on display that makes each individual story and beat work incredibly well. There is no big or profound statement being made here. And yet, the show as a whole is really a breathe of fresh air in what is shaping up to be an exceptional fall for new shows.

Sam Fox is a frazzled parent. But she's not a frazzled parent in the way that they are usually depicted on television. There's no big moment of frustration at the kids only to later come to the realization that they are a miracle and joy to have in her life. That's the simple and generic way to tell this story. Sam is in conflict with her daughters. But it mostly showcases just how difficult and real parenting can actually be. Kids aren't always that great. In fact, they can be the worst a lot of the time. They depend on their mother. It's overwhelming to her but it's still something she has to do because she's their mom. She wanted them. And more importantly, she wants them to have safe and healthy lives. But that's often at odds with everything else that Sam needs to get done. Having kids just increases the responsibility in one's life. Yes, there can be joyous moments. But the majority of the time it's not pretty. This show understands that and presents it in a really interesting way.

So, Sam is being stared at in the mall because she's doing nothing to comfort her crying daughter. She doesn't believe she needs to do anything. Duke is crying because Sam won't buy her the earrings she wants. That's what all of this is about. And yet, the judgment is still present. The world sees Sam as a bad parent because she does nothing. The world doesn't know the full story. Even when the details emerge, the judgment is still present. Being a part of society can suck sometimes because we're all just walking around not knowing the details of the world and people around us. Of course, Sam does want to maintain some societal norms. She doesn't want her eldest daughter, Max, coming to her taking about having sex and smoking pot. Max thinks Sam will buy her pot just because she asks. It seems completely ridiculous to Sam. She doesn't want that kind of relationship with her daughter. She wants her daughter to keep secrets from her. That's a twisted thing to say. But it's pretty realistic as well. Sometimes parents don't want or need to know everything about their children. It can be exhausting to know what's going on with everyone in the family. Sometimes it's good to be blissfully unaware. Sure, Sam will still act surprised when Max has friends over without telling her about it. But she also just accepts it because she fell asleep while putting Duke to bed. A decision that largely keeps her from doing everything else she wanted to do before going to sleep.

The kids get in the way of Sam having sex as well. Again, that could be a very cliche storytelling beat. And yet, it too feels very natural. The guys she dates are just other parents at her children's schools. They aren't that great. All she has to really excite herself is a fantasy over a text conversation. The exchange she has with the unknown recipient isn't itself very hot or suggestive. But it still provides the kind of escape that Sam wants. Of course, it's a fantasy derailed by the constant teasing of seeing the bubbles pop up and go away over and over again. That has been a joke on so many different shows. But here, it feels more subtle. Sam is excited and disappointed over these bubbles. They ruin the fantasy she was having. But that's not the end of the world to her. She's really just one click away from finding anything that can satisfy her needs on the Internet. She just needs to figure out what she's actually looking for. The Internet is great in that regard. But it's also lousy when living in a house with young kids who don't knock. Sam wasn't embarrassed by what was on her computer. But it was a close call nevertheless. It wasn't for any big reason either. Her middle child, Frankie, was just sharing her newfound fascination with African societies cutting off a woman's clitoris. It's a weird detail that informs immediately who Frankie is. But it too comes at the expense of Sam.

Not even Sam's work is safe from invasion by her children. They truly define everything that she does. Sure, they live in a nice house. But Sam has to keep working in order to afford it all. She's a struggling actress still going on auditions and complaining about the lines she is asked to deliver. Again, inside showbiz stories aren't rare in this medium. And yet, there still seems like a fresh perspective on this show. Sam is never really able to focus on her work because of the kids. It's fun and amusing when it comes to talking with Constance Zimmer at an audition. It's really funny when Sam suggests that Constance really isn't maternal despite her having a child as well. It's even better once they both leave after it's apparent Julie Bowen beat them for the role. Sam does have stability in her career though. This was simply another role she was going in for. She's also the voice of an animated cartoon character. It's pretty hilarious watching her complain about the school teacher who just called in the voice of the character. It's definitely something the sound engineer is amused by. It's just fun and light-hearted. That's ultimately the comedy this show is going for while producing these real moments of parenting. In the end though, Sam doesn't know how she feels about what she's asked to do in scenes because of her daughters. They could easily see anything that she does. That's scary to her. Max is already starting to find some of that early material. And now, she's being asked to have sex with Bradley Whitford. Her leg will be up in the air and his character's son walks in on them. It's the point of the entire scene. It's where the funny part of the joke is. And of course, that's what she has a problem with. She brings it up but nothing really seems to change. This is just a part of the world that she has to accept and find a way to keep on living in.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Sam/Pilot" was written by Pamela Adlon & Louis C.K. and directed by Louis C.K.
  • The problem Sam has with the sex scene isn't that her daughters will one day see it. She's much more concerned about the boys who are in the carpool with Max who may look at her differently should they ever find it.
  • Of course, graph paper is the one thing Sam struggles to find at the store. It's a piece of material that people need in school more than anywhere else. It's crucial to kids' learning. But it can be a hassle to find sometimes. And then, it's just right in front of Sam as soon as she decides to ask/yell.
  • Sam knows that she can't lay in Duke's bed with her at bedtime. She knows that she'll fall asleep and not get anything done. She plays a song to keep her awake. But she doesn't even make it through to the end of it before she's asleep.
  • Sam notes that her children's father is no help at all. He is not invested in any of their lives. And yet, it's only been a month since they've last seen him. So, it's not like he has been missing for that long.
  • Would Pamela Adlon and Constance Zimmer really lose out a role to Julie Bowen? I'm not saying it wouldn't happen. It would just be a bit more competitive than it is here. It's still a pretty funny moment though.
  • Also, Sam and Constance are friends largely because they always see each other at auditions. They aren't that close. Otherwise, Sam would know about Constance's kid. And yet, they are still comfortable talking with each other instead of actually looking over the lines.
  • Penis maybe closeup