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In Praise of Pamela Adlon

'Better Things,' her new show with Louis C.K., finally puts Adlon in the lead with this female-led autobiographical comedy.

Colleen Hayes / FX

Pamela Adlon has long deserved a show that is all about her. Best known as Louis C.K.’s straight-talking, unrequited love interest in Louie, Adlon often eclipsed the show’s creator and star: Picture her transfixed, pained expression as Louie insists on declaring his passion for her, or her systematic destruction of romantic tension on their dates. At a French bistro, she congratulates her co-star on a joke, starting off pseudo-nice: “Seriously that’s the first time you’ve ever made me laugh,” she gushes. “Louie, you’re the unfunniest comedian in the world!” Adlon doesn’t act like a recurring character in someone else’s comedy; she dismantles the idea that the show was comic at all until she arrived.

Better Things, which premieres on on FX this week, promises to distill that energy into 20 minutes of television as a sort of female-led Louie. C.K. and Adlon are both executive producers on the show, but C.K. doesn’t appear on screen. Instead, Adlon stars. Like Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm before it, Better Things is intensely autobiographical. “Pam” plays “Sam,” an actress raising three daughters on her own in Los Angeles; Adlon describes herself as single mother to three daughters.

We see Sam at work recording the voice of a cartoon character, a nod to Adlon’s 12 years as the voice of Bobby in King of the Hill, which won her an Emmy in 2002. Later, Sam acts in a raunchy drama that recalls the risqué Californication, in which Adlon played Marcy. A vision of Sam’s father, a TV producer with jutting 70s lapels, looms over her bed, assuring her that he has plenty of “irons in the fire”; Adlon’s TV producer father, Don Segall, passed the same catchphrase down to her. Even Sam’s eccentric mother, played by Celia Imrie, inexplicably has a British accent like Adlon’s own mother, an English ex-pat.

There’s something self-indulgent about converting your own day-to-day experience into art, but Sam is a very under-indulged character. She spends a lot of the show shuttling her children from one extra-curricular activity to another while they lob unreasonable demands at her. She can never win an argument. When she points out that as a single parent, she has to work, her daughter Max hits back: “You don’t have to work mom! You work because you wanna be famous, Dad told me.” In a stolen moment, she googles “Mature lady sex real,” only to be interrupted by another daughter, Frankie. She texts a number, listed as “nobody” in her phone, to set up a rendezvous, but the trail goes cold as three dots flash up, then disappear. “This is so unfair that I think I’m gonna pass out,” Sam tells Max. Adlon doesn’t ask us to run with Sam’s pretensions—she has none—she just asks us to recognize her selfhood. If autofiction for the relatively unattached male is best exemplified by Knausgaard, Better Things is its more poignant female analogue.

The show’s five central characters—Sam, her daughters Max, Frankie and Duke, and her mother Phil—are all female, rare for a comedy that isn’t about four friends. (All five also have traditionally male names, as if to prove a point.) Adlon subtly parodies Sex and The City, a format that can’t convey the challenges of her own story. She slips in a vicious SATC-style brunch scene, at which Sam reveals the results of a recent gynecological exam to three other women; her doctor has told her that she has “the reproductive system of a 16-year-old.” A hostile silence falls over the table. “Do you want to have a baby?” one friend finally asks. She doesn’t. “Then why did you bring it up?” There is no Charlotte, no Miranda, no Samantha. No Hannah Horvath, no Jessa. None of Sam’s friends wants to know this intimate detail, with its humblebrag of lingering youth, much less dissect it.

Adlon frees her character from the kitchen sink, just as she frees her from brunch. C.K. and Adlon’s first, doomed collaboration, Lucky Louie (2006), was a family sitcom that revolved around a few indoor sets: the starkly lit kitchen, the marital bedroom. An overeager laugh track made scenes between C.K. and Adlon, as his wife Kim, all the more claustrophobic. Cancelled after one season, Lucky Louie relied heavily on ba-dum ching repartee, which was also bad for Adlon, even when she got the punch-line; it forced her to play along, to cooperate with the logic of C.K.’s brand of humor. As her later performances in Louie show, she’s at her funniest and most unpredictable when she’s being antagonistic.

In Better Things, we finally see Adlon in a roving, female-led autobiographical comedy. The show goes to all sorts of outdoorsy places with Sam, who invariably gets into trouble: napping in her SUV, at Frankie’s football practice, or speaking to a room of schoolchildren about “women and girls’ empowerment.” Much like Louie and Curb, Better Things flutters around the edges of show business, straying onto a sci-fi movie set here, having dinner with a famous person (an up-and-coming director played by Lenny Kravitz) there. There are a few stand-out one-liners (“These things are normal but you should be ashamed of them, a little bit,” Sam counsels her eldest daughter) but the show is mainly funny because it has a funny narrative. Threads of plot collide in ways that are alternately neat or excruciating.

Most importantly, the world feels like a bigger place than just one milieu. Sam isn’t defined solely by work or friends or home, even though she spends a lot of time caring for children. Autobiographical comedies tend to be personality-driven, and the organizing principle for Better Things is the essence of Sam’s character, and of Adlon’s strengths as a comic actress. Louie is held together by the lead character’s tendency to lean into various forms of humiliation, Curb Your Enthusiasm is shaped by Larry David’s genius for giving offense, and Better Things is about Sam’s refusal to take on other people’s emotional burdens. She’s a master of turning people down. Just as Pamela rejects Louie over and over, Better Things’ pilot episode has Sam breaking off a relationship with “Sophie’s Dad”: “Richard, I’ll see you at school things,” she says firmly. When her overbearing mother chases her to her front door, she flicks an index finger at her, “Time to go home now though… Now. Go. Go.”

Comedies aimed at twenty-somethings are all about breaking down barriers—think Girls and You’re The Worst. But Better Things tells us valuable stories about putting barriers up and staying human. Adlon allows us to feel that it’s ok—necessary even—to say “no.”

Still, I found myself wanting a little more for Better Things. The show takes fewer risks than Louie, on which Adlon was also a consulting producer. It lacks the earlier show’s surreal interludes and flights of fancy. And whereas we see Louie performing stand-up, in scenes that sometimes compliment the episode’s themes but don’t contribute to its plot, we never really get to appreciate Sam’s work for its own sake. Her acting scenes are always interrupted by a plot point: An angry teacher calls her in the studio, or she walks off set to voice her reservations about a particularly tasteless sex scene. What if her kids see it? Her children are with her all the time, whereas Louie’s spend part of the week with their mother.

In these ways, Better Things is the most realistic show we have about the life of a financially secure, confident, talented woman who is a single parent. Unlike Louie, Sam doesn’t find (at least not in the season’s first five episodes) her equivalent of a “Pamela”; there’s no adult in the show who serves as her intellectual equal, a sparring partner, someone who can push back against her ideas and lift her above her daily concerns. But then, a Pamela is a very rare sort of person.