Pamela Adlon Keeps ‘Better Things’ Sharp and Endearing in Season 3

Better Things” returns for a third season greater and tougher, proving it can and did survive the sudden circumstances thrown at its creators. Following allegations against co-creator Louis C.K., there was speculation that the FX comedy would be another production biting the dust in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But co-creator and star Pamela Adlon has taken the reigns admirably, writing and directing new episodes with fresh energy and emotional punch.

Season three premieres with “Chicago,” as Sam (Adlon) joins her daughter Max (Mikey Madison) to prepare college dorm life in the Windy City. The whole transition is beginning to weigh on Sam as she pays closer attention to her own bodily changes. Her waist size is growing, to the point where she has to make bizarre explanations to security at the airport frisking line. It’s always hard to let go and so she floods poor Max with advice, takes her shopping for necessities (even lots of condoms), and tries to coax her into racing for the best room. Max doesn’t seem to have any real adjustment problems, immediately making friends with her roommate, Talasco (Thomas Greenough), who assures a suspicious Sam that all is well, he’s gay (or at least still trying to figure it out). Might as well fly back home, but that won’t be easy as a suspicious burning smell in the plane results in an emergency landing. Tired out, Sam returns home to find Phil (Celia Imrie) being her usual, cold self and her own house flooded with unknown kids. But good old Rich (Diedrich Bader) is there to help out and put everyone to bed (before running off to see his boyfriend). Frankie (Hannah Alligood) is glad to have mom back, especially since she’s too bored and distracted to read “A Raisin in the Sun” by herself for homework.

With Adlon now taking on more of the creative load (C.K. still retains a co-creator credit), “Better Things” begins its third season fittingly exploring the idea of transition. The kids are growing up fast and Sam is dealing more with herself. The opening scene where she is looking at herself in a mirror, perturbed by her weight gain, establishes a funny but touchingly intimate tone. The moments where Max begins her college life and has a goodbye dinner with Sam is more endearing than just dramatic. They go check out a show at the Green Mill when Max reveals she’s had a fake I.D. for two years now. The writing is so sharp and mature. Instead of having a freakout Sam is actually impressed at her daughter’s savviness. It is also a beautiful sort of mirror image for Sam, who realizes her daughter has inherited her own zest and will probably be fine out of the nest. When Max runs off with friends soon after, we feel more for Sam, who also has some changes coming her way. She’s reading new scripts, which sound absurd, but at least she’s working. Fans still point her out in public, even on the airplane. But even if she is still finding work, it’s life’s annoying little hassles that do much to get in Sam’s way.

One of the episode’s best scenes is when she’s going through the TSA check at the airport and finds herself having to explain THINX panties to an agent. With a lesser writer this could have turned into dumb farce, but Adlon plays it with a combo of slapstick and the sense of someone life keeps piling onto. Brief moments have a softer, yet biting edge, as when she walks into Phil’s living room to ask about a big smear on a car. The older mother just dismisses Sam and in clueless fashion tells her to ask Max about it. It’s obvious she’s not doing too well, and Sam can’t help but reveal a look of worry. But Adlon, who wrote and directed the episode, ends it all on a beautiful crescendo. The final scene where she helps Frankie read “A Raisin in the Sun” captures both the frustration having a kid going through the moods, while still feeling compelled to be a loving parent. She figures out a way where they can read the text together, and the final voiceover ends the episode on a rather elegant note.

Adlon also handles other dramatic touches with the kind of smart reserve you don’t see in phoned-in comedies. Sam’s father keeps popping up as an apparition, and in one scene her younger daughter Duke (Olivia Edward), appears to conjure him with a little ritual in her room. He passes by in the hallway, then she sees him sitting on a chair while getting into bed. This is another touch that could easily be corny, but here it’s touching. When Sam sees the same apparition during her flight, he’s lounging with beautiful stewardesses, passing on wisdom. The whole emergency landing scene is also pulled off without overdoing it. It’s just another one of those forks in the road, we’ve all experienced them.

“Better Things” is one of TV’s best sitcoms. It is heart and laughs, but simple drama at its core. In the hands of Pamela Adlon this season is poised to be even more personal and strong, letting us spend time with Sam and all her trials. She’s a great TV heroine because her hassles and journeys are all too familiar. They feel just like real life, fun and painful.

Better Things” season three premieres Feb. 28 and airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.