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A few things I realized watching tonight’s Better Things: 1. It is possible for even the most sullen, annoying of teens to get very excited about plumbing, especially when you’re talking about the “Bentley of toilets”; 2. Apparently, you can mix laxatives with booze; 3. Gastroenterologists like to stay really busy. 4. I love seeing Pamela Adlon flirt.
In watching Sam interact with Dr. David (Matthew Broderick, who is rocking that silver hair), I also realized that, for all of her unloading and outbursts in other moments this season, Sam has still been keeping so much inside of her, too. She may have saged Xander out of her life in “What Is Jeopardy?,” throwing away all the accoutrements for their voyeuristic game, but she remains unwilling to discuss their relationship or the fallout with her temporary therapist. Other things Ms. Fox refuses to talk about, even in such a confidential environment: her mother, her kids, her father, her childhood, her dating/sex life—really, anything of significance. She’s only going through the prescribed number of sessions so she can get her anti-anxiety meds and GTFO.
Sam is, per “Deezy,” an “emotional eel—slippery.” She wriggles away from his focus, from his questions, deflecting them with humor and charm. Though that description is new (and apt), her behavior isn’t. Sam has never been comfortable focusing on her own needs. She acknowledges them, and sometimes even fulfills them (see: her hookups with nameless guy in seasons one and two; her nights out with friends, like in “No Limit”), but she isn’t comfortable really exploring why the more complicated or uncomfortable ones are there. While acknowledging how awkward it must have been for her to talk to David about any of these things, given their history, Sam is clearly holding things back.
There’s undoubtedly an element of motherly selflessness to it—Sam doesn’t feel she can really devote the time to herself, or that it would be selfish to do so. But I also think it says more about the perception of Sam’s competence: though her kids and mother are often ungrateful, they usually look to her for help. They never think she’ll really let them down, not even after blowing up at her the way Frankie does when Sam brings up the ELO tickets she bought (the nerve of some attentive moms, amirite?). People are used to Sam being there for them. People are used to Sam. So they ask or they take, and her irritation or indignation hardly ever registers. And because Sam has grown used to them (and being used by them), she basically thinks she’ll always be able to. And, perverse though it may be, she takes a certain amount of satisfaction, maybe even pleasure, from knowing she is that person in their lives. Sam is that hyper-competent person everywhere she goes, from the set of a wannabe blockbuster to her own kitchen, where she somehow always has enough food for however many people sit down to eat.
Ultimately, these are tasks, and Sam is nothing if not task-oriented. But to dig deep and do the work of therapy? Well, that would require a level of emotional vulnerability that Sam’s already said she tries to her best to avoid. So she gets very little out of her brief time in therapy (for now, anyway) beyond a few adorable moments with David, who finds himself turned on by Sam’s reticence despite his own tendency to “indulge talking about everything.” There’s an easygoing chemistry between Adlon and Broderick. They talk to each other as if they haven’t just heard a lot of shit before, they’ve heard each other’s shit in particular—the refusal to open up, the insistence that this is a safe place to open up. But there’s also some delicious flirting going on; David might not be quite as enchanting as Mer (sorry, Matthew Broderick), but the looks that he and Sam exchange are… hot. The glint in Sam’s smoky eye as she looks at David over her shoulder will haunt me, because it’s so full of warmth and honesty.
I don’t think Sam intends to pursue anything, but she’s also not going to deny there’s something between the two of them. The way Adlon’s camera follows them around the room, eliminating the distance bit by bit, you’d think the entire sequence was taken from a rom-com. The tilt of Sam’s head, the smile on David’s lips—their attraction to each other isn’t some desperate second-act-of-life move. They’re not just two people who happen to find themselves single and somewhat attracted to each other. They’re two smart, attractive professionals, with their own respective lives and interests… who may just want to fuck each other. I doubt David will be back, but that doesn’t really matter. Something I find especially heartening about Better Things is how dating isn’t only ever treated as this fruitless, scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel endeavor. If romance isn’t really a part of Sam’s life, it’s because she isn’t making room for it. Her prospects may not be what they once were, but she’s still capable of hitting it off with a Mer or a David. I love that about this show—there are so few series that really tackle dating or romance in middle age. More often than not, that’s the terrain of twenty- and thirtysomething shows; that, or you get the horny septuagenarians of Grace And Frankie (whom I adore, so don’t @ me). But divorced fortysomethings who want to date reiki instructors or buttoned-up therapists? Not so much.
Aaand I’ve gone off on a tangent. There is actually another huge release for Sam in “Toilet,” which is also something she happens to spend a lot of time on this episode. Adlon’s warts-and-all approach continues, as Sam preps for a colonoscopy. She chugs booze and laxatives, then vacates her bowels so strenuously that she immediately begins shopping for the “Bentley of toilets,” something you can apparently “flush a kilo of cocaine or a small dog” in. There are all sorts of blockages first, from Sam’s constipation to Frankie getting trapped in her room, the latter of which is resolved much more readily (kudos to the fireman for throwing in a subtle dig at Sam’s difficult middle child on his way out). But “Toilet” throws open the door and unkinks Sam’s small intestine or colon or whatever, allowing the conversation and backed-up feces to flow freely.
Sunny is by Sam’s side in the hospital, before and after the procedure, and I have just a few moments to be glad that Alysia Reiner is back before the gut punch. Dr. Santoro tells Sam she may have a malignant polyp, and the shock on Sam’s face is enough to stop you in your tracks. Adlon edges Sam’s support system (Sunny) out of the frame, moving in to capture Sam’s fear. No one wants to hear the word “malignant” in a hospital, certainly not someone who just has so much to do. But Sam pulls herself together, buys a new, high-powered toilet, and eventually goes to meet Dr. Dave, who could probably provide her with emotional support given her situation, but is instead only allowed to mention his “blue balls of the heart” for her. Sam gets release, again, and that’ll just have to be enough for now.
- Pamela Adlon directed “Toilet,” which she also wrote with Joe Hortua.
- Is it really too much to hope that Mer will come back?
- Is it too much to hope that Deezy will come back?
- Sam’s anesthesia-induced vision makes her home life look like something out of a horror movie, which, fair.
- “You know I do a thousand [colonoscopies] a year, right?” “I don’t know why you’d want to, but all right, if you say so.”