From the first scene of Better Things’ first episode, it’s clear we’re far from conventional sitcom territory. Sam sits quietly on a mall bench while her youngest daughter, Duke (Olivia Edward), sobs. When the prim older lady sitting on the other end of the bench glances over disapprovingly, Sam bluntly shuts her down: “Do you want to buy her the earrings?”
What’s most striking about this introductory scene is Duke’s outfit. She’s around eight years old, with long, unkempt hair, and she wears a pair of men’s slacks that look about two sizes too big, paired with a collared shirt under a sweater vest. It’s a strikingly androgynous look for a little girl on a half-hour comedy, and what’s more, it’s never the subject of explicit comment. Instead, visual cues indicate that in the world of Better Things, this is normal. Sam herself never wears a skirt or a dress; she usually wears jeans and a leather jacket or blazer. As a single mom, she’s the man of the house.
Better Things frequently uses clothing to illustrate how clothing affects our perception of people — particularly women — and the various roles they play. Sam’s oldest, Max (the gorgeous Mikey Madison), a tetchy teen, wears midriff-bearing crop tops and outfits that show off her cleavage and her long legs. In one episode, when she admits to anxiety over her future, Sam takes her shopping and insists she try on a black suit. “You know those people that you see every day that look like they have their shit together and they made all the right choices and how impossible it seems just to get to that place?” Sam says, turning Max toward the mirror. “Well, look. Look at you. You look like one of those people. And all they did was put on the clothes.”
Sam’s middle daughter, Frankie, keeps her hair short and dresses exclusively in boy’s clothing: baggy t-shirts, old-man sweaters, loose-fitting jeans. In tonight’s finale, Frankie is sent home from school for using the boy’s bathroom.
Earlier episodes hinted at this conflict. In the sixth episode, “Alarms,” Sam takes the girls shopping, and Frankie comes out of the changing room with a dress crumpled in one hand, refusing to wear it for her mother. In that same episode, one of the season’s best, Sam tapes a sitcom pilot, the kind that depicts a white, nuclear family squabbling adorably in their brightly-lit kitchen. (The set resembles the one used in Lucky Louie, Louis C.K.’s one-season HBO comedy that predates Louie and that stars C.K. and Adlon as a couple raising a daughter in their New York City apartment. That show functioned as a critique of the network sitcom in a similar but much more explicit or “meta” way than Better Things.)
Here, the contrast between the brightly lit, cookie-cutter kitchen set and Sam’s shambolic house full of mismatched furniture and funky art is stark. Her sitcom daughter is styled like a clichéd “angry teen,” with a short, plaid skirt and black lipstick. Her “husband” enters (“Good morning, family”), wearing khakis and a blue button-down, and gives her a kiss. Sam tells him their teenage son won’t take his lunch to school, and he slugs him playfully on the arm and says, “That’s my boy. Don’t eat your lunch, eat the other guy’s lunch, am I right?”
Lots of TV comedies — too many, you could argue — take place in Hollywood or some other corner of the entertainment industry. But Better Things’ use of this setting goes beyond the typical critique of Hollywood phoniness, gesturing toward the difference between what “normal” looks like on a sitcom versus in real life — where everything looks so much more varied and unusual and individualized, and where problems can’t be solved with a kiss on the cheek and a brown-bag lunch.
Critics have been praising groundbreaking, taboo-slashing, progressive series like Better Things for years, as the proliferation of streaming sites and cable channels has resulted in an outpouring of creativity and innovation on TV. And yet it turns out a lot of Americans are just fine, thanks, with the kind of ordered domesticity that you see on so many network sitcoms — a vision of family life many others see as hopelessly archaic.
“I suck as a daughter and I suck as a mom,” Sam laments in tonight’s finale. Better Things is about the roles women play, and how we are forever failing to live up to expectations set many, many years ago but that have proven maddeningly difficult to challenge.
The season finale of Better Things airs tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.