The gap between network TV and what’s on FX just gets wider all the time. Streaming and pay TV we expect to be fresh and edgy, but my hands-down favorite writing at the moment is happening on FX.
I have already raved endlessly about “You’re the Worst” (starting off strong in their 3rd season) but FX’s two new well-reviewed dramedies (we have to come up with a better name for this!), “Better Things,” and “Atlanta” are both extraordinary, interesting shows that walk the tough tonal line between hilarious and touching, manage to reflect real life in a way that is much more meaningful than so-called “reality” shows, and uplift with their brilliance.
“Better Things” stars Pamela Adlon, a veteran of Louis C.K.’s show. He produces her in this similar vehicle, a riff on what appears to be Adlon’s actual life as a struggling actress and single parent, created and helmed by Adlon herself. I wasn’t a fan of her abrasive character on Louis’ show and I’m not sure I like her on this show either, but frankly, it doesn’t matter. The writing is so sharp that I’m already hooked. My favorite scene so far is Adlon sitting on a bench in a mall, patiently waiting out her 7-year-old-ish daughter’s tantrum. Another woman sits on the other end of the bench, judging her. Adlon: “She’s crying because I won’t buy her a pair of earrings that she already has at home. She’s crying because she wants to wear them right now.” The woman keeps judging. Adlon: “Do you want to buy her the earrings?”
And if you’re thinking, “She just likes ‘Better Things’ because it deals with middle aged lady concerns,” please explain why I’m so nuts about “Atlanta.” Donald Glover, late of “Community,” plays another earnest character, this time one with the actual name Earnest, or Earn for short. Like “Louis” and “Better Things,” “Atlanta” is a passion project for Glover who also produce and directs, although I have no idea how closely it hews to his actual life. Earn is a Princeton dropout who has returned to his working class roots in Atlanta. Lacking a plan B, he decides he needs to manage the career of his cousin Alfred, a local rapper who is having a moment. The beauty of “Atlanta” is in its throwaway lines and occasional lyrical moments, such as when what appears to be the ghost of Malcolm X. makes Earn a peanut butter sandwich on the bus. Earn’s character can be tiresome — it’s tough to watch someone sabotage themselves over and over and still feel sympathy — but I can’t get enough of the other two main characters, Earn’s cousin Alfred (aka Paperboy) and his insane sidekick Darius. At one point Darius postulates a world in which we could use rats as cellphones (and makes it make sense). In another great scene, Alfred and Darius are cleaning their guns and end up musing on the psycho-sexual ramifications of women who want to call you “daddy” in bed. The only flaw so far in the four episodes I have watched (and it’s a big one) are the cartoonishly evil female characters. Particularly disturbing is Earn’s bougie baby mama, a one-dimensional, materialistic nag with no redeeming qualities. I’m praying that he will develop the character of Earn’s mother, for instance, who seems to have quite a bit of potential.
Let’s contrast, if we must, with the two new network shows I watched this week. “The Good Place” just seemed like an awful idea. The premise that someone has been sent to heaven by accident in place of an actually good person is so thin that I couldn’t begin to imagine where they were going to go in the second half of the pilot. I will never know. As soon as Ted Danson killed a small fluffy dog, I turned it off. Other than a cute gag about how much frozen yogurt there is in heaven, there wasn’t an original or interesting line in the half that I saw. Kristen Bell and Ted Danson should have run screaming from this script.
And then there’s “Bull.” Didn’t you always want to know what it would be like if Dr. Phil tried to write a TV show? Me neither. The result was worse than my wildest fears. This derivative show about a genius jury consultant stars Michael Weatherly who is Robert Wagner-lite, pleasantly attractive without being magnetic enough to anchor a show. This is important. I watched many seasons of the almost equally banal “Castle” simply for the pleasure of Nathan Fillion. “Bull” is so bad it literally made no sense. It’s my fault for watching a show that had the tagline, “Bull. He’ll Get You Off.”