BETTER THINGS (2016-2022)

(Hulu) While I’m well-aware that I occasionally describe a work as a dramedy, it’s simply meant as shorthand rather than for any love of the term. While I use it, it means: this work isn’t wall-to-wall empty laughs or overwrought heartbreak. Real human drama is often funny ha-ha, and sometimes comedically tragic; I believe that great dramas generously sprinkle in comedy, and great comedies are built on dramatic tension. A spoonful of sugar, etc. — one way or the other — so to say. Yet, I don’t think I’ve seen a show that so perfectly balances the two as Pamela Adlon’s BETTER THINGS.

BETTER THINGS centers around Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon, who has been a very hard-working character/voice actor for years), an L.A.-based middle-aged screen-and-voice-actor and the single mother of three daughters: teenage Max (Mikey Madison from SCREAM (2022) and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD), pre-teen Frankie (Hannah Riley), and youth Duke (Olivia Edward, who occasionally popped up in CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND). Living next-door to her is her willful, very passive-aggressive British mother named Phyllis, but Sam solely calls her Phil. (You may sense a naming trend here.)

(I need to note: Louis C.K. — who admitted to sexual misconduct, and who did fictionally sexually assault Adlon’s character on LOUIE — was a credited writer, producer and co-creator for the show, but while he is no longer a writer or producer, he is still credited as co-creator. It’s also worth noting that Adlon was the best part of the greatest episodes of LOUIE, as well as his short-lived show LUCKY LOUIE. In other words, they have history and it’s complicated, and she isn’t discussing it. As far as I’ve read, he’s had no input on the show for some time.)

Initially, the show is about Sam navigating her life as she feels her age and feels those around her react to her age, all while she juggles the needs of motherhood. However, with each subsequent season, the show expands, and it becomes far more about maintaining family bonds as your brethren move forward and change.

Additionally, as the show progressed, it became far more experimental, indulging Adlon’s delightfully fanciful filmic flights, often through local trips, or through another character’s POV. It feels like a true exploration of life, of aging, of self-acceptance, self-discovery, self-improvement, and reckoning.

It makes time to luxuriate in life and the little joys: the tranquility of cooking, a brief nap in the park, people-watching, while never turning a blind eye to the harder parts of living, especially when you have to tend to the ever-changing needs of your children and yourself.

No, the show is not a gut-buster; it’s not meant to be. However, it always makes me laugh, and then two minutes later my eyes are welling up.

I’ve seen all but the finale — which airs tonight (April 25th) — but I wanted to boost it now because I’m impatient.

Season 1 Trailer:

Final Season Trailer (for the brave):

Favorites of 2021: Films

Here are my favorite — note, not what I feel are the best — films of 2021, in alphabetical, non-prioritized, order:

BARB & STAR GO TO VISTA DEL RAY

“I miss this sort of comedy, the kind of comedy that doesn’t call attention to its jokes, the kind that’s sharply written and doesn’t meander or rely on extended improvised riffs. It’s tightly wound silliness with a ton of great talent”

“It was a real tit-flapper!”

BENEDETTA

“[U]ltimately this is a human drama, one which showcases how very little has changed over hundreds of years.”

CENSOR

“[A]n extremely mannered film until, well, until it isn’t. Stick with it and it will fuck you up.”

THE FRENCH DISPATCH

A surprisingly sincere triptych from Wes Anderson.

JOY RIDE

“We’re all healing as we (hopefully) come to the end of this awful era, and seeing JOY RIDE under these circumstances was such an immensely enjoyable time, and I’m so happy I could see it with such giving artists.”

THE SOUVENIR PART II

“I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.”

SPENCER

I’ve had the goddamn hardest time getting people to watch this film, solely because of Kristen Stewart, but hell, the way she casts her eyes … I wish folks would just watch the trailer and see her transformation.

“You are your own weapon.”

[…]

“Will they kill me, do you think?”

TITANE

“I can’t remember the last time I so extensively averted my eyes from watching a film. However, those moments are not exploitative — they are meant to be uncomfortable, they are there for a reason. I simply felt that I was able to glean that reason by listening, instead of watching.”

Missed:

  • ANNETTE
  • CANDYMAN
  • CYRANO
  • DRIVE MY CAR
  • MEMORIA
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY
  • NINE DAYS
  • PASSING
  • PLAN B
  • RED ROCKET
  • SHIVA BABY
  • TEST PATTERN
  • THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH
  • ZOLA

WORK IN PROGRESS “161, 153, 137, 122, 106, 104, 102 (We’re Still Counting Almonds.)” (S01E04, 2019)

(Showtime/VOD) WORK IN PROGRESS is a television dramedy about Abby (show co-creator and comedian Abby McEnany) who self-identifies as a “queer, fat dyke” and lives in Chicago. Abby is also 45-years-old and miserable, and she’s decided that if she can’t find some semblance of happiness within 180 days (marked by 180 almonds, one of which she throws away each day), she’ll end her life.

That sounds morose, but the show is often hilarious thanks to Abby’s cynical persona and the inclusion of Julia Sweeney, who Abby hates because for years people kept comparing her to Sweeney’s ‘IT’S PAT’ SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE character.

One endlessly fantastic facet of the show is that it is shot in Chicago, and quite a bit of it is shot in Andersonville, my neighborhood. Andersonville used to be known as ‘Girlstown’ due the number of queer women and lesbian bars — including the historic Stargaze — but that moniker no longer describes the area due to an influx of queer men and straight couples who will live here for a few years with their dog and toddler before they head to the suburbs.

But I digress. Andersonville is not why I mention this episode (although it does open with Abby at a bar just down the street from me). I’m bringing it up because the last third of the episode takes place at Ravinia — technically in Highland Park, a Chicago suburb — the oldest outdoor music festival in the U.S., and this episode features my favorite scene of the entire season, briefly featured in the trailer below. Additionally, it’s a great solo episode that encapsulates the show!

(Lastly, if you watch season two, you’ll catch a glimpse of our neighbor’s house, as they shot some interior scenes there several months ago. It was a tad surreal, especially during the pandemic.)

FREAKS & GEEKS (1999)

(Hulu/Paramount+/VOD) FREAKS & GEEKS is finally available to stream! If you haven’t already purchased the DVD, or have enough grey hair to have watched it when it first aired, Hulu managed to clear all of the music rights and — after a bit of a stumble out of the gait — have the eps properly ordered.

If you’re a product of the 80s — especially if you were a nerd in the 80s — it’ll be a trip down memory lane. If not, given how absurdly recognizable all of the actors and creatives are, it’ll be another sort of nostalgia for you, as it introduced the world to: Judd Apatow, Linda Cardellini, Paul Feig, James Franco, Busy Philipps, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Mike White. A laundry list of modern heavy hitters, all of whom cut their teeth on this show.