New FX series 'Atlanta' and 'Better Things' examine youth, middle age
The new programs have rather divergent subject matter, yet each is anchored, both behind-the-scenes and on-camera, by a single comedic mind; each is as much about atmosphere and character as it is about humor. Both shows are also notable for fleshing out the typical demographics of cutting-edge comedy in Hollywood, which typically skews white and male.
Donald Glover and Pamela Adlon do not have a lot in common. The former is a rapper and comedy writer who became known in TV circles for his five-season long stint on the cult comedy "Community." The latter is a performer with a long career as a voice actor and comedian who is probably best known for her recurring role on "Louie."
But what's immediately striking about both "Atlanta" and "Better Things," the new half-hour shows debuting on FX this week from these two creatives, is how similar they are despite rather divergent subject matter. Where Glover's show "Atlanta" is about youth – the extended adolescence of aimlessness, to be sure, but still the beginning of adulthood, with all of its fears and hopes – Adlon's "Better Things" is about the slog of middle-age, with three kids, two dogs, and a stalled career. But each is anchored, both behind-the-scenes and on-camera, by a single comedic mind; each is as much about atmosphere and character as it is about humor. Both shows are also notable for fleshing out the typical demographics of cutting-edge comedy in Hollywood, which typically skews white and male.
And most importantly, both shows are very good. In an era flooded with programming, much of it mediocre, FX has managed to produce two gems by following a template – which may sound tepid, but is arguably the greatest compliment one can give to a network. Following in the footsteps of its critically acclaimed (and currently on hiatus) comedy flagship "Louie," FX has found a tried-and-true formula for creating comedy that works for this generation of viewers and this generation of television. That's nothing to sneeze at.
Though both shows owe a debt to "Louie," "Better Things" owes the bigger one. Louis C.K. co-created the show and collaborates on it with Adlon (though so far at least, he hasn't made an on-screen appearance). The brash, confrontational sweetness that Adlon showcased on "Louie" is much of the appeal of her own show. She plays Sam Fox, a single mom raising three attitudinal daughters and navigating Hollywood as a middle-aged woman. Neither is a particularly wonderful experience.
We've seen excoriating takes on Hollywood's gender politics before, in shows like "The Comeback," "Inside Amy Schumer," and "Doll & Em." "Better Things" fits squarely in with the best of that pantheon – especially in the fourth episode "Woman is the Something of the Something," where Sam is considered for a pilot.
But if it's just serviceable when it comes to the indignities women face in Hollywood, "Better Things" is unmatched when it comes to depicting the bittersweet indignities of parenting. Sam's daughters are just as smart-alecky and rebellious as she is (or was), and keeping up with them takes up all of her energy. They're amazing, but also infuriating, and Sam alternates between embarrassing them, failing them, and running after them trying to get them to pick up their clothes. "Better Things" quickly invites the viewer into the intimacy of this family, with home videos and screaming fights in the hallway. Adlon appears to be bemused and amused at what her life has become – a cross between the stereotypically harried "having it all" career mom and a messy, extended adolescence, where sometimes her daughters are less charges than peers.
In that sense she's borrowing directly from "Louie," where Louie is constantly befuddled by what life, and his daughters, expect from him. But "Better Things" stops there. Where "Louie" is frequently taken by flights of fancy and an inexhaustible curiosity about why the world is what it is, "Better Things" is, so far, more focused on the Fox family's daily grind. The world is full of puzzles, but Sam and her daughters largely leave others to the solving.
This is not the case with "Atlanta," which, of the two comedies, is the more successful one – a finished, cinematic, and beautiful production that may be one of the best new shows of the fall. Glover plays the significantly named Earn Marks, a nearly homeless failed rapper alternating between mooching off of his parents, crashing with his ex-girlfriend (with whom he has a young daughter), and eating cereal at his cousin's. When the show starts, he's the embodiment of being torn between alternate lives – childhood with his parents, domesticity with his ex, and the path of adulthood his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) has chosen, which alternates between trying to make it as a rapper named Paper Boi and the far more lucrative business of selling drugs. Earn doesn't like any of his options, but being without a job, a house, or cash, he's forced to make some decisions. Unlike "Better Things," "Atlanta" offers up a protagonist who needs to get somewhere; the first few episodes begin to build a serialized arc, albeit one dotted with quiet, clear-eyed moments of reflection.
It's so rare for a show to be by and about black people that "Atlanta" is instantly a political show – telling a tale from a historically disenfranchised milieu in a city that was the capital of a slave state just over 150 years ago. But "Atlanta" is not an issue show, set to preaching its sermon to like-minded masses. The show is so specific and genuine in its interest for these particular characters that it avoids the pitfalls of being the indie comedy about young black people (the same type of meta-problem that HBO's "Girls" ran into when it attempted to be "the voice of a generation").
And "Atlanta" is laugh-out-loud funny, in a way that has the viewer cackling during a scene where the characters are totally silent. Unlike a sitcom full of punch lines, wordplay, and setups, "Atlanta" takes its time to build to its humor. But when it does get there, it's hilarious. And though Glover is the comedy veteran, it's Henry ("Boardwalk Empire") and Lakeith Stanfield as sidekick Darius who end up nabbing a lot of the laughs. Glover has long struggled with the dumb-and-nice image of his character Troy on "Community" – and worked against it actively with his rapper persona, the swaggering Childish Gambino. With Earn, he's neither a caricature or a persona, but – in a delicate, darker turn – an endearing screw-up with a lot to prove. For viewers who lament the potential of what "How to Make It in America" could have been, "Atlanta" presents a different, and much better, story of the essential American plot: the hustle.
Neither Adlon nor Glover are the only creative forces behind their shows. Adlon is joined by Louis C.K. in both writing and directing, along with producer M. Blair Breard. "Atlanta" is driven by Glover's vision, but run by veteran showrunner Paul Simms and directed beautifully by collaborator Hiro Murai. But both "Better Things" and "Atlanta" fit into "Louie's" model of pinning a show on the blurred lines between fact and fiction for one comedic personality. All three of these comedies are more slice-of-life than joke-a-minute, creating a tapestry of experience that is as much about place and character as it is about the funny person at the center. FX has experimented a lot with comedy over the years, with varying degrees of success. This model, evidently, is one that works.