In FX’s intentionally eccentric hit “Louie,” Pamela Adlon played a recurring character who was an intoxicating if exasperating presence in Louie’s life — an occasional lover who mainly served to deliver Louie a needed dose of his own misanthropic medicine. Besides getting an Emmy nomination for the part, Adlon, as “Louie” fans know, was integral to the show’s success, serving as both writer and producer. (Yes, I am starting to talk about “Louie” in the past tense. Who knows if it will ever return?)
It would be fair, then, to expect “Better Things,” Adlon’s frank and funny new comedy that premieres on FX on Thursday (with Louis C.K. as its co-creator), to serve up a character much like the one we’ve already met.
“Better Things” may indeed bear “Louie”-esque traits, but Adlon reaches into her own life story (as Louis C.K. did on his show) to play a character who is a continent plus a few million more emotional miles away from “Louie’s” gray-sky Manhattan gloom. Adlon’s character here, Sam Fox, is a new acquaintance who still feels like an old friend — a nearing-50 actress and voice-over artist who is a single mom in Los Angeles providing for her three daughters and her British mother (Celia Imrie), who lives in the guesthouse.
Sure enough, it’s about someone who works in the Industry, another in a string of inward-focused TV shows about awkwardness and professional pitfalls as experienced in a particular swath of L.A. As with “Louie” and what seems like 97.8 percent of all half-hour dramedies out there, Sam is seen working gig to gig, as she has done since her most memorable role in a TV show when she was a child actress (also mirroring Adlon’s résumé).
At auditions, her competition includes “UnReal’s” Constance Zimmer and “Modern Family’s” Julie Bowen. (Friendly cameos abound in “Better Things”; in another episode Sam gets a supporting role in a project starring David Duchovny.) In recording studios, her voice transforms into cartoon characters (something we’ve also just seen in Netflix’s “Lady Dynamite”).
We follow Sam from those auditions to soccer fields, to a helpless moment searching for graph paper in a Staples, to a fight in the minivan with her oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), who has asked her mother to score her some pot. When told no, Max yells: “You’re my mom! I want you to know if I have sex or if I get high!”
“Augh!” Sam shouts. “No! Hide things from me, please!”
Five episodes in, there’s not much indication that we’re charting new territory. Parenting is still hard. Finding sexual satisfaction in early middle age is still challenging. Hollywood is still not particularly generous to women older than 29. Teenagers are still a nightmare.
But it’s worth remembering that “Louie” didn’t come across as particularly groundbreaking, either, at first glance — a show about a working comedian who keeps encountering unhappy, terribly awkward situations? Yada, yada, yada, said “Seinfeld” fans. The attraction both in “Better Things” and “Louie” is that we are in the hands of terrific writers and actors who intuit the range of human banality and emotions like great jazz musicians.
And, as with “Louie’s” portrayal of father-daughter interactions, the better episodes of “Better Things” draw memorable, deeply felt performances out of the young actors playing Sam’s daughters (in addition to Madison as Max, Hannah Alligood plays Frankie and Olivia Edward plays Duke). The show is strongest in scenes between Adlon and this hair-trigger, hormonal trio who drain their mother’s energy with ferocious spats of anger and need. “Better Things” may not seem all that original, but it makes up for it with sharp pangs of family intimacy.
It may seem unfair to combine a review of Adlon’s show with a review of Tig Notaro’s long-awaited Amazon dramedy “One Mississippi,” the first season of which streams Friday. I mean, jeez — can’t two shows created by and starring funny women merit their own separate reviews?
Sure, except for all the practical similarities: Both shows bear Louis C.K.’s input and seal of approval; and both feature semi-autobiographical premises.
Notaro has yet to deliver much that isn’t partly or entirely autobiographical. After the New Yorker profile, the public-radio appearances, the comedy tours, the Showtime road-trip documentary, the Netflix documentary, the HBO comedy special and the recently released memoir, it’s almost impossible to not know that Notaro survived breast cancer in 2012 (she took off her shirt in her recent HBO special, revealing her double-mastectomy scars) and that her mother died or that, after the cancer, Notaro still struggles with an intestinal disease.
Onstage, Notaro turns these and other downbeat personal subjects into bits of deadpan humor so dry it would make a forest ranger nervous. She’s one of those comedians whom other comedians put at the top of their lists.
Unfortunately, “One Mississippi” (co-created by Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody) is a belated re-enactment of Notaro’s most shopworn material — stories her fans have heard before, reheated here and served on a fancier plate in standard dramedy style.
Notaro plays a version of herself named Tig Bavaro, a KCRW radio host (one SoCal hipster reference too many) who is still recovering from her mastectomy and must fly to her coastal Mississippi home town to sit by the hospital bed of her mother (Rya Kihlstedt), who collapsed and hit her head at home and is being kept alive by a ventilator long enough for Tig to crawl into bed with her and say goodbye.
After an unwelcome surprise visit from her L.A. girlfriend (Casey Wilson), Tig decides to stay for a spell in the house that her mother shared with Bill (John Rothman), Tig’s socially awkward stepfather, and Remy (Noah Harpster), her failure-to-launch older brother. We see small-town life and Southern manners through Tig’s gimlet eye. She’s the prodigal lesbian who escaped and has returned to discover some of her mother’s hidden secrets — and ostensibly to make droll observations about her own mortality. Or maybe she’s just on a hunt for new material. (News flash: The human condition is absurd and unfair.)
After watching all six episodes, a viewer is likely to ask: Why isn’t this show working, exactly? It has the same artistic resources as “Better Things” — good writers, a strong director and a star who everyone in the Industry insists is a genius. In tone and intent, it’s just like so many other of the cooler half-hour shows on cable and streaming that everyone seems to enjoy, such as the aforementioned “Louie,” plus “You’re the Worst,” “Lady Dynamite,” “Togetherness,” “Master of None,” “Maron,” “Transparent” . . . the list goes on.
Well, maybe there’s your answer. “One Mississippi” is so much like everything else that it fails to stand out.
Better Things (30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX.
One Mississippi (six episodes) begins streaming Friday on Amazon.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly reported that some episodes of “Better Things” were directed by Nicole Holofcener. She did not direct any episodes.