Saying Goodbye to “Better Things,” A Five-Season Balm Against Cynicism

I watched the first episode of Better Things in September of 2016. There are a lot of things to note about this time — primarily that I still thought I was straight and a man — but what stands out to me the most is how deeply invested I was in Hillary Clinton.

Of course, I stand by canvassing against Donald Trump, but my support for her was not reluctant. I’d already gone through a lot of my political awakening in college and was even inching toward abolition. But somehow my belief in the goodness of politicians remained. I was devoid of cynicism. I guess the other thing to note about this time is I started watching Better Things because of Louis CK.

It is now April of 2022. I scroll through my Twitter feed and amid the overreactions to pop culture lie story after story that make my chest hurt. Alabama is the latest state to criminalize trans healthcare. The most vulnerable in what is now my community face daily attacks. There is a coordinated effort to make sure young trans people suffer as much as I did as a teen — if not much worse. JK Rowling is trending once again as cis people, faced with the same hopelessness as the rest of us, dunk on her to do something. Then, of course, there’s the war in Ukraine, and the frustrations with the response to the war in Ukraine when Palestine is still occupied and so much of the world suffers from American harm in American silence. Covid continues, nearing a million deaths in the US, while our government run on capitalism tries to convince us that everything is normal. A shooting has happened in New York and I can’t even feel concerned about the immediate victims, because I’m too worried about how this one act of violence will lead to far worse structural violence. I could not care less about what Hillary Clinton or any major Democrat politician is up to. Oh and Louis CK winning a Grammy is just one more news story to add to the despair.

When I feel this sort of darkness, I turn to action and I turn to art. But I’ve honestly been less active this year than maybe any other since I was a literal child. I know I need to work past my cynicism and find a space for direct action that helps others and fuels me. I care too much about others to give up. I know these recent months cannot become my new normal. And I believe I’ll move past this, because I’ve had moments like this before. Maybe not to this extent, but it’s impossible to live honestly in our world and not sometimes feel stuck. And my first step to get unstuck has time and time again been art.

Better Things has been one of my comfort shows since it began. Last year, I wrote about how the show has told a unique and important story for queer youth. Its message feels even more important now than ever and this new season builds upon those achievements. One of the best moments this year is when Frankie teaches their mom about pronouns. Sam keeps making jokes and Frankie just lets them fall. Sam isn’t villainized – she’s just embarrassed. The show casually shows that adjusting to our existence may take effort, but if you’re not willing to put in that effort you’ll end up just sort of being uncool.

And yet it wasn’t this storyline that brought me the most comfort. It wasn’t even the complicated portrayal of motherhood that year after year has felt like a healing hug — and made my biological clock tick. Throughout the show, and especially this year, my favorite moments were when Sam Fox cooks.

Whether she’s making borscht or chicken or a margarita, Sam’s attention to process and detail is sharp. She prepares sustenance and libations as an act of love, a form of comfort, a way to bring people together, an attention to self. And no matter what she’s making or who she’s making it for, the show lets us watch. What would seem unimportant on most shows becomes the focus. Her labor, her time, as a mom, as a person, is valued by her camera. It’s a cooking show where we’re all the winner because we get to witness something so simple and so human.

This love of food, as well as Sam’s love for her children, are two aspects carried over from Louie. But in that show these things existed to show contrast. It was a way to add depth, to show that the fucked up man we were rooting for contained multitudes. But in Better Things, these qualities aren’t a contrast — they’re a way of life. Sam’s relationship to food and to her children holds the same care, the same attention to detail, the same love of life, that she brings to all her interactions. It’s a sardonic tenderness. A feeling that this person is plenty aware of the fucked up-ness of the world and has decided to lead with pleasure and kindness anyway.

The most poignant moment in the series finale comes after a humorous yet tender interaction with a neighbor. Sam’s youngest, Duke, turns to her. “Mom. You’re nice,” she says. “You know something, you’re a really good person. You are. You have a way of bringing people together and making people feel good. I just— I don’t know. I like it. I like you. I like the way you live your life.” And then because this is Better Things, Duke hiccups and says, “I gotta take a shit.”

Of course, Sam Fox, like Pamela Adlon, is a successful actor and creative, which gives her the money, which gives her the time, to live life as she does. But her kindness is available to us all. Her curiosity is available to us all. And even her attention to detail, while easier with money, is in ways available to us all.

The finale begins with a musical number about disconnecting from our phones and ends with the whole cast singing “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life.” Small acts of kindness and putting care into meal preparation won’t solve the world’s larger problems. They won’t stop the legislation against trans youth. They won’t end state violence. They won’t prevent predatory comedians from renewed success. But what making borscht for your loved ones will do is remind you to fight. It will remind you why the world is worth saving and why life is worth living. It will chip away at your cynicism and help you move forward.

I needed that reminder right now. Maybe you do too.


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Drew Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 268 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I started watching this show for the first time only a few weeks ago (yes, I know, very late to the party).

    I love it but I also find myself thinking back to the real verbal hostility and meanness between Sam’s kids and Sam, and Sam’s kids and each other.

    It’s at its height in Seasons 2 and 3, and later I read that Louis CK did some of the writing, at least on Season 2. It made me wonder if some of the meanness reflected what he thought of as normal in a household setting.

    As someone who’s a queer parent in a household with queer kids, I would never allow that level of sheer verbal meanness between my kids.

    Despite all this I loved much of the show and it really made me think and look up other shows with the actors.

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