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Better Things

I’ve had the fourth season of Pamela Adlon’s Better Things sitting on my DVR since lockdown started, waiting to find the right moment to watch it. The series has been a personal favorite of mine since it started airing on FX back in 2016, and I usually rush to watch it whenever new episodes start airing. But my experience with the previous seasons is that my emotions are usually put through the wringer a LOT when watching it, and while the show has brought some moments of transcendent joy there have also been more then a few times when scenes were difficult to get through. As a parent, the struggles that Adlon’s character Sam Fox goes through raising three daughters on her own in Los Angeles resonate with me quite a bit.

So I’ve been holding off watching the new season until I felt like I was in a good space to do so, both emotionally and psychologically. And in the early months of the covid-19 lockdown, I most definitely was not in that headspace. But then as the summer wore on and the election drew near, I had a whole other set of anxieties and stress to contend with. It wasn’t until this past Saturday, when the election results came in and the race was finally called for Joe Biden, that I felt like it was time to dive in. Then I did something that I hardly ever do: I binged watched the whole thing in two days.

Normally I like to savor the shows that I enjoy. I start at the beginning, and watch one a night until I reach the end. I like to spend my time digesting the stories, spending as much time with the characters as I can.

Not this time. Saturday night after my kid went to bed I started in on the first episode of the new season, and watched four episodes back to back. Then on Sunday afternoon I watched the other six episodes over the course of a few hours, taking occasional breaks to do laundry or cook. And while I normally prefer to take my time, I feel like this viewing benefited from being done all at once, as there were a lot of plot threads that were teased out gradually over the course of the whole season, and that I might have lost track of if I’d been going through them more slowly.

I’ve raved before about how much I admire the lack of a traditional narrative structure in Better Things. Rather than episodic stories that fit into neat half-hour time slots, instead it feels like we’re just dipping into the lives of these characters for a few days and weeks at a time. Characters and conflicts are introduced, then seemingly not resolved, only to turn back up years later in another season. (This piece by Phillip Maciak for the LA Review of Books includes some really insightful analysis of how the show is structured, while focusing on the spiritual and supernatural elements of the plot.)

(One aspect of the viewing experience that was more than slightly surreal was the fact that the recordings on my DVR dated from the beginning of March to the end of April. Those first episodes aired before the pandemic really hit and the latter ones were from a few weeks into full lockdown. The commercials shifted from the Before Times to These Uncertain Times around episode four or five, and the last episode featured an introduction by Adlon herself over a Zoom call exhorting viewers to stay home and wash their hands. The whole show was like a time capsule, both capturing the world before the pandemic as well as what it felt like when it finally hit.)

I absolutely adore this series, and love spending time with this family. If you haven’t sampled it yet yourself, all four seasons are available on Hulu. And if you’ve seen earlier seasons but haven’t yet tried out the new one, you are in for a treat. As for me, I think I’ll be going back and watching the whole thing from the beginning again soon. I think I’m in the right headspace to enjoy it again.