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July 16, 2020 by

“Better Things:” Your Jewish and Frankly Feminist Review

Better Things reached season 4 and protagonist Sam’s kids are still assholes: the formerly angelic Duke a little bit more, the always caustic Frankie a little bit less, and we barely see lovely wild child Max anymore. Time, in the world of this funny, melancholic, and moving show about raising three daughters as a divorced single mom in LA, is progressing. And Sam – played by director and creator Pamela Adlon, herself, like Sam, a single divorced mother with a Jewish father – is moving on too.  This season is all about movement: in the water that forms the backdrop to every episode in one way or another; in the lingering camera shots that dwell on paintings, or facial expressions, in an expected black and white silent movies; and in the interviews of women that dwell lovingly and joyfully and painfully on their words as if to insist that these words matter. 

But it’s all done gently, and it’s all part of a package of what women deal with all the time, as part of…life.  This is a show about life. A beautifully rendered, thoughtfully crafted, messy and beautiful (and privileged, but it doesn’t pretend otherwise) life.  About its great joys and great sadnesses, and in some finely wrought moments like a raucous karaoke car ride, the poignant sadness of the great joys of life.

At the center of this life is Sam Fox, a well-known character and voice actor who takes care of her three kids, her outrageous and not entirely competent mother, her best friend(s), her directors, and basically everyone in her life, from recent acquaintances to long-standing connections.  Profoundly empathic and charismatic, Sam gets into it with you, and Sam gets you.  And we the viewers are utterly drawn into her world.  We are captivated by these finely drawn narratives of human experience, as seen through the eyes of a women who loves hard and hates hard, but mostly, almost entirely, loves.  We’re rooting for her to release most of that hate, but maybe not all of it – we are a little bit captivated by her hard edges as much as her soft ones.

Her hate is focused basically in one direction: her ex-husband and no-show father, who consistently disappoints his daughters and justifies Sam’s righteous anger.  But—as she so often shows others – that anger is corrosive, even if it is legitimate.  This season is all about imagined futures even as it dwells lovingly in the present: and the best version of that future for Sam, a woman who insists on defining the terms of her own life and happiness and building the family she chooses, means letting that hate go.  She does, but she doesn’t forget where it came from; weaving within her story the stories of other women and insisting that they be made visible.  Always, but especially as they age.  Her beautiful daughters are always seen: this is the story of Sam and others like her also drawing our eyes.

As a feminist viewer, I find the show deeply comforting. All mothers, Sam pronounces in a particularly moving moment, are single mothers. 

But it’s not exactly true: Sam is a single mother. I am not. But I still agree with her battle cry that women need to support each other, that women – in her playful reclaiming of terms – need to be brothers for one another.  Sam’s chosen family is a tight knit group of women (and a gay best friend, of course) who are indeed brothers to each other, in good times and bad.

Coming at it as a Jewish feminist, the show can be more challenging. It’s Jewish – so Jewish – but also not quite.  Sam has got the right words.  (Mensches abound).  She’s got the cultural referents.  She cooks and feeds others all the time, and in her world, that is absolutely a spiritual activity.

She and her girls spit on their fingers three times to ward off the evil eye – often in unison – on the regular. But it’s all a bit of a muddle. And Adalon knows it.  She plays with it, winking to the audience with a character named Chaya whose name no one can pronounce, a phenomenon familiar to many blessed with the hard Ch in their names.  (As my friend Chavi says, “at this point I’ll answer to anything but Harvey.”) 

Sam’s middle child Frankie requests a quinceañera for her 15th in lieu of the bat-mitzvah she bypassed at 13.  Sam is understandably uncomfortable with the appropriation of a life cycle event not her own, but navigates this by joining with her gardener, to throw a joint event for the coming of age of their daughters.  It’s still weird, but maybe in a nice way?  (Maybe? YMMV, but it is an event of great joy and great cultural exchange.)  It’s no longer a quinceañera, now, but a Batceañera, with a few tallitot in the background and a combining of ritual.  Some of it wrong.  Why oh why does Frankie break a glass at the end?  It’s a great shot of everyone yelling mazel-tov but no one got married.  Is Adalon repurposing this powerful ritual moment, or does she – or the Jewishly muddled Fox family – just not know? 

In the end, it doesn’t matter. The details are very much not the point.  What matters is the coming together, the loving, the fighting, the celebrating. What matters is the life. That’s the story of the show, and that’s the story of the water in the show, from the relentless rain so desperately needed in drought-ridden LA, or in the swimming pool of that final, perfect melancholic scene of the season, or the endlessly joyful shots of the girls dancing on the beach.  In the end, it stops raining.  So Sam and her family go swimming.