As the success of Empire has illustrated, hip-hop culture — a world that white America usually glimpses via rap music videos — is now firmly entrenched in the mainstream. But Atlanta has the feel of a music video that’s wrapped for the day, when the gold chains come off and the crew sits down to smoke a blunt on the porch.
The show is simultaneously high-stakes and low-key, the tone abruptly shifting from the abstract to the all-too-real. Earn spends the second episode in a police station waiting area, where he and the other men waiting to be processed watch a mentally ill man drink water from a toilet. While Earn is concerned, the others — guards included — just laugh; the man’s in there every week. But when he turns and spits toilet water all over a guard’s shirt, several officers beat him to the ground and restrain him, ignoring his screams. The men in the waiting room turn stone-faced. It’s not funny anymore.
The world of Better Things feels safer than the world of Atlanta, but no less volatile. If you were a fan of Adlon’s character, Pamela, on Louie — where she also played single mom and the object of Louie’s undying affection — you’ll like Sam Fox. The pilot opens with Sam sitting on a mall bench while her youngest daughter (Olivia Edward) sobs uncontrollably beside her. “Do you want to buy her the earrings?” Sam asks an older woman sitting on the bench, dispensing disapproving looks. “Cause that’s why she’s crying, because of six dollar earrings that she has at home already.”
Sam’s deadpan weariness offsets the manic energy of her three daughters, who, like Sam, are androgynously named: Duke (Edward), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and 16-year-old Max (Mikey Madison). Sam isn’t an apron-wearing, cookie-baking kind of sitcom mom, but neither is she a harried, frenzied mess; she’s too tired to be hysterical. She’s kind of like a less caffeinated Lorelai Gilmore, if the Gilmore Girls protagonist had three unruly daughters instead of one saintly one, lived in L.A. instead of quirky small-town Connecticut, and found a home on an upwardly-mobile basic cable channel like FX instead of the teen-skewing CW.
In a great scene from the pilot, Sam sees the actress Constance Zimmer, another middle-aged, sardonic brunette, at an audition for a small part on a procedural (“Listen, Jack — I started this firm, and you are not getting rid of me!”). Zimmer asks if she’s seeing anyone, and Sam replies, “I’m dating my daughters. They’re my love life.” When Julie Bowen walks out of the audition room, smiling and shaking hands with the producers, they both get up and leave. It’s Julie Bowen. Game over.
Of course, plenty of recent comedies take place in the entertainment industry (BoJack Horseman, Lady Dynamite, Take My Wife, and Difficult People come to mind), but it’s refreshing to see a show about a working actor slogging through voiceover gigs and one-off roles in sci-fi series in order to feed her kids, not her ego.
If Atlanta’s meandering fragments evoke the music it’s centered on, Better Things is as no-nonsense as the life of a single, working mother. Short, soundtrack-less scenes show Sam dragging the garbage and recycling bins up the driveway; making dinner; picking up a stray sock on the staircase on her way to bed. One episode opens on a tight shot of Sam’s face and bare shoulders, in what appears to be a strenuous sex scene — until the camera pulls back to reveal the protagonist wrapped in a towel, furiously plunging a toilet.
But Better Things leaves room for little reveries in which Sam latches onto a stray moment of escape. After she catches Max in her bedroom with two friends, half-naked, giggling, and stoned, she wearily closes the door and heads off to bed when she gets a text message from a male friend. As Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” begins to play, Sam’s phone takes up the whole screen, interspersed with flashbacks to Sam meeting the man in a hotel room. The camera lingers over those tell-tale ellipses as Sam asks when he’ll be back in town — and whether he’ll be alone.
In Atlanta, Glover’s Earn is frantically casting around for something that will provide stability for his family — for the tools to build himself a life. Better Things’ Sam is firmly locked in hers. The experience of an upper-middle-class white woman in Los Angeles and that of a poor black man in Atlanta don’t appear to have much in common, but both series center on the ongoing struggle to make yourself happy while doing right by your family. “I just think we need a chance as humans to fail in order to discover what actually works, you know,” Earn tells Van in one episode of Atlanta. “People don’t think there’s a process to being happy.”
Atlanta airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.; Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m., both on FX.