‘Better Things’ Recap: Father Knows BestRolling Stone — Alan Sepinwall
A review of this week’s Better Things, “Nesting,” coming up just as soon as I get annoyed by the single pickle floating in the jar like a turd…
The first long scene of “Nesting” (after a teaser where Sam texts her brother Marion a picture of a turd she spots while driving) has Sam interviewing a group of aging character actors, played by real-life character actors including Bernie Kopell (The Love Boat), Glynn Turman (A Different World, The Wire), Nicolas Coster (Santa Barbara) and Mary Jo Catlett (Diff’rent Strokes). In the real world, they all had some of their most high-profile roles when Pamela Adlon (and, thus, Sam Fox) was just breaking into the business as a child actress(*). On the show, they all knew Sam’s father Murray (who will appear in spectral form late in the episode). Turman’s character, Rocket, even quotes a vintage bit of Murray Fox advice: “You get stuck, in writing, in marriage, in life. You get stuck… Shake the cocktail.”
(*) One of Adlon’s first roles was opposite Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman in a TV-movie called The Fantastic World of D.C. Collins. So she and Catlett have another thing in common.
As a lifelong character actress who has improbably become a leading lady in her fifties, Adlon (and Sam, who’s irked at how little she’s being paid for Monsters in the Moonlight) keenly understands what these men and women have gone through in their careers. One day, if Sam is lucky enough to be around that long, another generation’s Sam Fox might film her old war stories. But for now, she can occasionally try to shake the cocktail and share her good fortune with some of her peers.
“Nesting” is a Better Things that’s unusually generous to the series’ whole recurring ensemble. The bulk of it takes place over a long and relaxed dinner party at Sam’s house, and there’s even a scene — where Marion, Sam’s friend Rich and her manager Tressa get high in the garage — that neither features Sam nor has anyone talking about her, an extreme rarity for this show. (Occasionally, we see the girls interacting with each other, or with Phil, but even those scenes are on some level implicitly about the heroine.) There are some interesting developments in Sam’s own life: She continues flirting with Mare, the manager she met on the movie set last week, even while denying that she’s doing it; and Max tries to tell her (though Sam doesn’t seem to realize it) during a FaceTime call that she doesn’t intend to stay in college for very long. But mostly it’s a chance to check in with the people she cares about and has made part of her extended family, some official, some not.
A lot of time is spent, for instance, on Jeff (whom you might remember from that time Sam said “no” to him a few dozen times when he tried to kiss her) and his new girlfriend, Reiki, played by a suitably laid-back Sharon Stone. Jeff brings a monkey into the house, to the delight of Frankie (and the embarrassment of Duke), and Reiki seems to fit in smashingly with this hard-to-please group. She fits in so well, in fact, that things grow awkward when Jeff’s ex (and Sam’s best friend) Sunny turns up. You can see Sunny’s mental gears turning as she realizes that, for maybe the first time since she’s known him, Jeff may be nearing equal footing with her where this group of lovely but judgmental people is concerned. It’s not a good feeling for her, and it’s a testament to how well Adlon directs (and simply trusts) her actors that Alysia Reiner is able to say so much without dialogue, even though Sunny is an infrequent presence on the show.
For that matter, this is only Kevin Pollak’s third outing as Marion(*), who lives out of town and has always had a more strained relationship with Phil than his sister does. But those brief appearances, coupled with our understanding of Phil (whose polite new boyfriend Walter, played by Harrison Page, we meet when they crash the party), do more than enough to inform our understanding of the argument between the siblings over whether Phil should keep driving. Sam understands that her brother is right — on her way home from the airport in the season premiere, she noticed signs of a recent fender bender on her mom’s car — but it’s a headache for her if Phil needs a chauffeur. And on some level, she resents Marion trying to assert himself after he moved halfway across the country and left her as Phil’s only watchdog. It’s a brief scene, but it feels fraught and ominous even before Murray’s ghost pops up to tell Sam that she should listen to Marion.
(*) And it somehow took me until this appearance to put two and two together about him having what’s now a stereotypically female name (though it used to belong to men like Marion “John Wayne” Morrison) in a family where the women all go by masculine monikers.
Better Things is a versatile enough series that it’s never really at risk of getting stuck in the way Murray Fox liked to warn against. Still, “Nesting” is a charming, Robert Altman-esque shaking of the cocktail. It’s an episode that’s just happy to spend time in Sam’s world and to let us listen in.