Over the next few years, the oldest millennials will hit a major milestone. Welcome to 40 Is the New 40, a series of essays about—and for—a generation rethinking what it means to get older.
When Better Things finished its award-winning five-season run this spring, it left its fans bereft. I came to Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical show late, only becoming a diehard after seasons 3 and 4 were available to binge-watch. But once I finished 4, I was in the tank, recommending the show to friends and acquaintances with the slightly disquieting fervor of an evangelist preacher on the subway.
“It’s about an actress who’s successful but not famous, and it captures what it’s really like to have children!” I would say with a strangely avid gleam in my eye. Of course people would promise to watch, but I always knew when they actually had because they would text me live updates, like “I’M SOBBING” and “I’M DYING” and “I NO LONGER NEED THERAPY.”
Especially as I approached and then sailed past my 40th birthday, a milestone that has been in the rearview for Adlon’s alter ego, Sam Fox, since before the first season began, I began to find something downright healing about watching this show. For the first time ever in my experience of watching television, I was seeing a middle-aged woman onscreen whose aging body and mind were not merely a footnote or a source of cheap laughs. Far from it! Better Things is unapologetically centered on Sam, making her hot flashes and struggles with parenting teenagers the main focus instead of what they’d be on another show: distractions from some younger, presumably sexier character’s dramas.
As we say on Passover, dayenu! If God had only given us a perimenopausal protagonist, it would have been enough. But Sam is also a one-of-a-kind character, the kind of person you can’t help but want to know everything about. She’s a ball of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions: a consummate professional who loves to work but also makes the coziest, warmest, most welcoming home for her daughters and their friends. She is unstintingly friendly to everyone she encounters, in a way that feels natural for someone who’s been performing since childhood (as Adlon and her character both have).
Sam knows in her bones that the person who’s getting the coffee can sometimes become the head of the studio. But she is never phony-baloney, because she also knows that the person who’s the head of the studio can sometimes become the person who’s getting the coffee. When you’ve been in the business as long as Sam has, you know that while everyone deserves a second chance, life’s too short to give anyone a third chance. And no one is so important that it’s worth debasing yourself for that person.
In women, this kind of confidence—by which I mean a palpable comfort in one’s own skin and an unwillingness to cede that comfort in deference to anyone else’s—is rare, in fiction or in real life. I don’t have it, and I don’t know many people who do. But watching Sam Fox in Better Things made me realize that it’s what I want most for the next chapter of my life, even more than money or any kind of career success.
The only thing I might want more than confidence is the other thing Sam has, which is an authentic multidimensional relationship with her kids. Sure, they fight all the time—there’s a memorable scene in season 4 where Sam calls her eldest daughter a c-word—but they also reconcile, in ways that never seem sitcom-pat but rather deeply earned. And even as we see Sam in moments of extremity, acting out and behaving self-destructively, we never see her do or say anything to deliberately harm her children, physically or psychically.
Toward the end of the series, as her kids inch toward full independence, it’s moving to see how much Sam treasures their company. She seems to genuinely be having fun hanging out with her kids. I hope that more moments like those could be in my family’s future too.
Is it possible to be a breadwinner, a great mother, an excellent host of dinner parties, and also, due to having perfect hair and lots of dark eyeliner, a hottie? It’s a lot easier for a fictional character than it is for a flesh and blood human, sure. But I choose to believe that Better Things is pretty much a documentary about Pamela Adlon’s life, with some of the rough edges sanded off but an essential truth preserved. It almost has to be, because I think it would have to take a person with that kind of unshakable confidence to get a show that was as perfect as Better Things made in the first place.