Streaming spotlight: In final season, “Better Things” continues to do what it does best
Pamela Adlon’s comedic but poignant look at the life of a middle-aged single mom feels, in some ways, ahead of its time — and that’s been true of "Better Things" since the beginning. The co-creator and star’s no-holds-barred vision explores so many issues that have been under a magnifying glass during the pandemic: motherhood as a never-ending fatigue cycle, the pressures of caring for aging parents, the ongoing desire for artistic success, the list goes on.
In its fifth and final season, Sam (Adlon) is in a moment of transition. She has grown disillusioned with her career as an actor, despite her stable prospects. She is almost an empty-nester, but her daughters continue to create bursts of chaos in the family unit. Her self-absorbed mother is preparing to say goodbye to her home and perhaps even her life—or is that just Phyllis (Celia Imrie) being impossible again?
Each episode centers on a slice-of-life moment in which the drama tends to be muted, but the relatability factor is high. Adlon, who directs every installment of this final season, prefers to explore the messy, banal, not-so-flattering side of motherhood and artistic ambition than to smooth over the wrinkles. From a costume-fitting gone wrong to a sporadic parking lot shooting, the show approaches each scene with a kind of mild shock and chuckle, an approach that is more akin to real-world reactions than your average series.
BETTER THINGS "Rip Taylor’s Cell Phone" Episode 1 (Airs Monday, February 28) — Pictured (l-r): Hannah Alligood as Frankie, and Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR. Suzanne Tenner/FX
In that sense, "Better Things" is best understood as a character study and one of the great rewards of season five is to see how Sam, her daughters (Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley and Olivia Edward) and mother fulfill the promise of previous years. In a show this subtle, there is a continuity and coherence to their actions that can only be the result of whip-smart writing and the great care with which Adlon has directed this work.
Subtlety doesn’t imply that this is a season of barely-there giggles, however. There are plenty of slapstick, humiliating and downright WTF-moments to keep the viewer laughing. Special guests like Danny Trejo and Mario Cantone keep the show exciting and add an additional layer of unpredictability. Nevertheless, "Better Things" requires more thought and active participation than a standard comedy. Comfort watching it is not.
But this was never a standard comedy or even dramedy. Fans of the show will appreciate how it never condescends or belittles them. It plays, as they say, to the top of their intelligence. Sam is a tough cookie, but she still shows how life as a mother and artist can be bittersweet when you break the mold. [Ines Bellina]
Dramedy, 10-episode final season. TK episodes screened for review. First two episodes streaming on Hulu March 1. New episodes arrive weekly on FX on Mondays and stream via FX on Hulu the day following. Featuring: Pamela Adlon, Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley, Olivia Edward, Celia Imrie, Kevin Pollak, Diedrich Bader.
About the writer: Ines Bellina is a writer, translator, and bon vivant. You can read her work at The A.V. Club, Consequence, Shondaland, Chicago Magazine, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @ibwrites for her hot takes on #BachelorNation.
Other highlights from the week in streaming
The Dropout -- "Old White Men" - 104 -- Walgreens is enticed by Elizabeth to seal the deal on a new partnership with Theranos. Ian tries to investigate what's going on behind closed doors. Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), shown. (Photo by: Beth Du
- The Dropout (Hulu): Amanda Seyfried plays Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes in this hotly-anticipated limited series. Look for our review later this week. [Eight-episode limited series. First three episodes streaming March 3 on Hulu.]
- Worst Roommate Ever (Netflix): Watching this Blumhouse docuseries is a surefire way to never want to live with another person ever, ever again. For the most part, it’s boilerplate nightmare fuel, complete with grim talking heads and moody music. But "Worst" has something in common with the best installments of the genre, a quality mirrored in one particularly memorable moment in the series premiere, "Call Me Grandma." A detective walks through the suspect’s home and realizes that the carpet feels too plushy somehow. He peels back the top layer and finds, well, more horror. That’s "Worst Roommate Ever" in a nutshell: you think these stories are bad, then the series peels back the carpet and it all gets that much worse. [Allison Shoemaker] [Two episodes screened for review. Five-episode true-crime docuseries. Complete series streaming on Netflix March 1.]
- Next Level Chef (FOX): The first season of this Gordon Ramsay series comes to an end with one of the promising would-be superstars winning "a life-changing $250,000 grand prize." [11-episode reality competition series. First 10 episodes streaming on Hulu. Finale airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on FOX March 2.]
- Our Flag Means Death (HBO Max): "Thor: Ragnarok" helmer Taika Waititi comes to HBO Max with this irreverent comedy based on the real-life adventures of aspiring pirate Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), whose life gets that much more interesting when he encounters the infamous Captain Blackbeard (Waititi). [10-episode comedy series. First three episodes streaming March 3 on HBO Max.]
- Joe vs. Carole (Peacock): Kate McKinnon, Kyle MacLachlan and John Cameron Mitchell star in this fictionalized take on the "Tiger King" saga, adapted from the Wondery podcast "Joe Exotic." [Eight-episode limited series. Complete series streaming March 3 on Peacock.]
- The Boys Presents: Diabolical (Prime Video): Fans of "The Boys" and lovers of profanity alike should make this animated spinoff of Amazon’s edgy comic book adaptation a priority. [Eight-episode first season. Complete season streaming March 4 on Prime Video.]
- Pieces of Her (Netflix): Toni Collette and Bella Heathcote star in this adaptation of Karin Slaughter’s 2018 thriller novel of the same name. [Thriller series. Eight-episode first season streaming on Netflix March 4.]
- Bug Out (IMDb TV): This is a docuseries about the greatest bug heist in history, in which $50,000 of live insects were stolen from the Philadelphia Insectarium. If that sentence doesn’t sell you, nothing will — but that’s just the beginning. [Complete four-episode docuseries streaming on IMDb TV on March 4.]
More binge-worthy TV, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): One of the very best contemporary space operas came into being as an oddball TV reboot (you can stream the original series for free, too). Three Emmys, many Cylons and one devoted fandom later, it’s regarded as a soon-to-be classic, anchored by great performances from Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff, James Callis and the incredible Tricia Helfer, among others. So say we all. Rated TV-14. 74 episodes.
The Freak Brothers (2021): Based on Gilbert Shelton’s cult classic 1960s comic, "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers," this adult animated series follows three hippie stoners who smoke a magical strain of weed in 1969 and fall into a 50-year slumber, only to wake up in the 2020s. "The Freak Brothers" is a Tubi Original. Rated TV-MA. One season, 8 episodes. Featuring: Woody Harrelson, John Goodman, Tiffany Haddish, Pete Davidson, La La Anthony, Adam Devine.
Scooby-Doo Where Are You? (1969): If the kid in your life doesn’t already know this show’s iconic theme song by heart, now is the perfect time to teach them. Rated TV-G. 25 episodes.
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About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.