This year, we've asked 10 writers to pick some of their favourite TV episodes from 2017 and weigh in on why they were great stand-alone eps and the highlights of our viewing year. Today: Our final entry, David Fear on Better Thing's "Eulogy."
Being a parent sometimes sucks. This is a scientific fact — go ask a scientist, she will tell you it's true. You are vomited upon, defecated upon, shrieked at. You are rarely if ever thanked. You are usually viewed as a walking, talking ATM machine, at least until your kid or kids become teenagers — then you are a walking, talking ATM machine who's also a fucking idiot. For every moment in which you watch your offspring contentedly sleeping, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, or saying they could not have won that Oscar without you, there are hundreds of thousands of confirmations that you're merely the giving tree and the eventual vestigial tail of your child's life. You're told — by a very wise man, no less — that you just don't understand. You are, in your child's eyes, not really a human being.
Pamela Adlon gets this. She understands your pain, as well as what it's like to be someone else's daughter. Listen to the theme she chose for Better Things, her extraordinary contribution to the actors/stand-ups-mine-their-lives TV genre that's encompassed the good (Master of None, One Mississippi), the bad (F Is for Family, the recent Curb Your Enthusiasm season) and the retroactively ugly (do we really need to spell this one out?). The 51-year-old co-creator could have gone with an old-fashioned sitcom song about making lemonade from life-handed lemons, or a Carole King tune about leading and following. Instead, Adlon picked "Mother," John Lennon's cri de coeur about being abandoned by his parents as a kid — a primal-scream therapy session disguised as a pop song. It plays over old home movies, happy-go-lucky outings and a screaming match in a car wash. It sets the tone for her show immediately.
The show's sophomore go-round — a 10-episode run completely directed by Adlon — is ridiculously ripe with highlights, from her character Sam's dance-routine graduation gift to a glorious extended symphony of "NO-NO-NO-NO's" after a near-hook-up. It's Season Two's "Eulogy," however, and its heartfelt variation on Huck Finn witnessing his own funeral, that grabs the brass ring. You do not have to be a parent to appreciate it, to be moved by it, to find it hilarious or to soak in the sadcom pathos at the core of it. If you do happen to have kids, though, you'll immediately hear the sound of cutting bone.
Divided into three basic vignettes, "Eulogy" starts with Sam teaching her acting class — a mix of surrogate parenting and hard-won showbiz wisdom that essentially sets up the conjoined-twin aspects of what's to come. She offers tough-love critiques and counsel on overcoming the perils of the industry ("The key to getting steady work is to make shitty writing mean something"). She hands out brutal assessments on what's not working, done not out of spite but out of love; there's a very mother-grizzly aspect to the way she refuses to pull punches. She's prepping these newbies for the predatory real world. Then, as a bonus, she drops this nugget: "Whatever your fears are, whatever you suck at — you gotta tap. They wanna see you at your weakest." It's as close to a meta-mission statement on Adlon's way of working on this series as you're likely to get, and something the episode's writer ... well, not yet. Let's wait a bit before we get into that.
The next section you might simply title "An Actor's Work." Adlon and Curtis (Swingers' Alex Desert) shoot a scene. She has to come up with a million variations for a single line: "Can I drive now?" The duo are forced to repeat the exchange ad infinitum. Maybe the director is getting what wants, maybe he's not? Just keep going. Hell is not other people — it's "a 20-second version of Groundhog Day," an existential loop set against a green screen. It feels like Adlon could have left this extended one-joke sketch out of the episode until, retrospectively, you begin to see what she's doing. She's establishing the concept of acting — her acting — not as a luxury or a labor of love but labor, period. This what she does for a living. She takes in pride in her work.
And then comes the pay-off.
Sam, her friends Tress and Rich, and her three daughters — Max, Frankie and Duke — are watching TV. The channel-surf onto one of Sam's old movies; her eldest kid breezes past it. Once Mom gets upset, the unholy trio she's spawned berate her for being so damned sensitive about it. "They'll love you when you're dead," Rich cracks. But she's not having it. Sam would like her kids to appreciate how those clothes get on their backs and that food found its way into their stomachs. So she declares: I'm gone, deceased, kaput. You're at my funeral. (Her youngest, Duke, begins to get upset. "Oh no, Dukie, no baby ... you're dead, too.") Start complimenting me. And then, angry that they're still not taking her seriously, she leaves the house.
Sucking down whiskeys at a local bar, Sam gets a text: Come home. Once she returns, they stage the mock wake she wants. Frankie, her androgynous middle kid, talks of how she watched all of her mother's work but never told her how proud she was, because "once I gave her that, I wouldn't have it to give anymore ... I needed to give her some of my pain, because I knew she could carry it." Max talks of being jealous of having to share her mom with both her sisters and the general public, that "I don't like that she's famous or on TV — she's my mother." Rich reminds everyone that Sam was very, very short. Duke gets angry that no one is sharing memories of her. The whole thing ends with what may one out of three television group hugs that feels properly earned.
The whole sequence blends sentimentality and laughs and anger and a deep-rooted sense of how family, the ones you choose and the ones you raise, knock us down and prop us up — a page out of the playbook of the episode's sole credited writer, Louis C.K. His entire stand-up act, the one that got him fame outside of the club circuit, was based on the idea that, even though you love them, your children are assholes. But this is Adlon's show, and Adlon's triumph, one that another person's scandal shouldn't rob her of. As the IRL mother of three kids, you assume her blood in those lines as well; as the person responsible for the primary creative voice of this show, the episode fits perfectly within the framework she's devised over two seasons. This not being defensive. This is stating a fact. Better Things is her thing.
And in terms of standing out as a chapter in her ongoing story, "Eulogy" is 23 mins of grace notes. You could single out the way Diedrich Bader, always a great comic voice to have in your corner, lovingly says, "You're dead" to Duke. You can praise any of the performances of its young-actor trio. You can admire the way the episode slyly structures itself to set up the third-act wish fulfilment. You can watch this get a sense of the bittersweetness that Better Things channels even its funniest moments. It's a show that is more then ready to pick up the mantle of personal, surreal situation comedy. With this second season, it has demonstrated that it's better than great. We want it know that before it shuffles off this television coil.