That blip of a generation known as X, born roughly between 1964 and 1982 (including yours truly), is accustomed to being overlooked. That’s always been our chief gripe, but it’s also been a blessing in disguise, allowing us to sit back and watch as baby boomers and millennials fight to the death.
Turn on your television, meanwhile, and Generation X seems to be quietly having its day. Our “Friends” and “Party of Five” years are well behind us, but our razory snark and cloudy-day cynicism is sometimes on competent display, inspired by our most influential compatriots, including Tina Fey (born in 1970), Ryan Murphy (1965), Dave Chappelle (1973) and Louis C.K. (1967).
Betwixt and between the old analog world and the digital one, we play grown-ups now — doctors or presidents or recently divorced detectives. Most often we play sitcom parents who stand as the last defense between civil order and the techno-narcissism that awaits. Our spotlight is fading, but it was never that bright to begin with.
It is deeply satisfying, then, to recommend two entertaining dramedies — “Loudermilk” on DirecTV and “Better Things” on FX — that feature main characters who each offer unapologetic expressions of Generation X in a state of grumpy, middle-aged dissatisfaction. Too many of TV’s Gen-X characters are seen as icy, hypercapable bosses (see 48-year-old Anne Heche as an intelligence officer who remote-commands a special-ops outfit in NBC’s “The Brave”), working overtime to prevent chaos (50-year-old Kiefer Sutherland as a conspiracy-plagued U.S. president in ABC’s “Designated Survivor”; 51-year-old Téa Leoni as an overworked diplomat on CBS’s “Madam Secretary”; 40-year-old Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in ABC’s “Scandal”), or, once in a while, serving as master manipulators (48-year-old Christian Slater in USA’s “Mr. Robot”).
What’s frequently missing is the generation’s more subtle and artful expressions of indecisive lassitude — the built-in alienation, the lifelong romance with ennui. I miss that about us. Lately we seem adept but boring.
Peter Farrelly and Bobby Mort’s bitterly funny “Loudermilk,” a 10-episode dramedy premiering Tuesday on the DirecTV/AT&T Audience Network, offers an aged example of the species, with Ron Livingston starring as Sam Loudermilk, a 50-year-old former rock critic and recovering alcoholic who lives in the city once regarded as the epitome of Gen-X ethos (and pathos): Seattle.
Loudermilk supervises an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter that meets at a Catholic church; at night, he’s a janitor polishing marble floors in office lobbies. He shares a shabby but comfortable apartment with his sponsor and best friend, Ben (Will Sasso). Loudermilk resents technology and is unmoved by the prevalent notion that “GET OFF MY LAWN” is an effective millennial retort to an elder’s opinion. Lawn or no, he happily takes on the preoccupied busybodies who invade his slacker realm.
“You live in a world with other people. Get your nose out of your phone and you might see that,” he tells a young woman who has taken advantage of his door-opening courtesy and cut in front of him in line at the coffee shop to recite a long list of drink orders. “Why are you getting coffee for the whole office?” he continues. “Have you never heard of Betty Friedan? Gloria Steinem?”
“Maybe you need to be on medication,” she replies.
“I am on medication,” Loudermilk yells. “It’s called coffee, and I can’t get it because I have to wait for you to order for everyone in your millennial clown car.”
If all you really want in life is to watch a TV show about an old man who willingly enters daily etiquette arguments with complete strangers, you can’t do much better than 70-year-old Larry David’s constant harangues on HBO’s recently revived “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The misanthropy in “Loudermilk,” however, is more complex than David’s irritating shtick, setting up a more meaningful story arc about relationships, responsibilities and disappointment. How fitting that the title role has gone to Livingston, who is affectionately remembered for starring in the 1999 film “Office Space” as a young man whose workplace futility leads to a liberating breakthrough — and an embezzlement scheme. “Office Space’s” anarchic takeaway, if there was one, was to direct its middle finger at corporate culture, which was enthralling back then to underappreciated Gen-X worker bees, who enjoyed the sight of three men beating a laser printer to death.
With just enough wear and wrinkles enhancing his boyish sarcasm, Livingston gives a fine performance as a man whose sourness is an attribute. Kids, this is what happens to the man who can never stick to the sunny side of the street — he becomes the living ghost of old John Cusack movies.
We soon discover that Loudermilk did find love, once, but he lost it in an inebriated car crash. Now four years sober, Loudermilk is content to be a curmudgeon. He brightens a bit at the arrival of an attractive next-door neighbor (Laura Mennell), but the real change in his life comes when he takes pity on a young addict, Claire (Anja Savcic), who copes with her father’s death through drugs and alcohol.
All this, and still it’s a comedy. Co-creator Farrelly, who with his brother made a string of delightfully ill-mannered movies like “Dumb & Dumber” and “There’s Something About Mary,” has retained an essential (if risky) belief that jokes about bestiality, substance abuse and people with disabilities (with disabled actors playing those roles) can still be funny when expertly handled — and he’s not wrong about that. Despite a number of tangential shenanigans, “Loudermilk” remains resolutely focused on its title character’s permanent condition, which is resonant of an old Nirvana track: I hate myself and want to die.
Loudermilk is old enough to have improved on the sentiment. He hates himself (and plenty others), but living sure beats the alternative.
A similarly beautiful grouchiness sets the tone for Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things,” currently in its superb second season Thursday nights on FX.
In the tradition of nothing-means-everything vignettes, the show explores the believably exasperating life of Sam Fox (played by 51-year-old Adlon), a single mother of three demanding daughters in Los Angeles. Sam, who found early success as a child actress, pieces together enough bit parts, voice-overs and commercial work to eke out a comfortable living for her family, as well as her mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who somewhat ungratefully occupies the guesthouse.
A few of “Better Things’ ” best moments have also involved the dreaded get-off-your-phone conflicts that seem mandatory whenever Gen-X tries to connect with its Gen-Z offspring. In one memorable restaurant scene last season, Sam suggests that her tuned-out teenager Max (Mikey Madison) go sit with the man at the next table who is more interested in his phone than his female companion. “You should sit over there since you both don’t listen, and I will sit here with [his] lovely date.”
As cliche as it may seem, these scenes are perhaps sending a necessary message to future historians: Not all of us fell quietly and passively into the screen. Years from now, Gen-X characters will either look like all those cardigan-wearing Silent Generation sitcom dads bemoaning shaggy hair and loud music, or we’ll look like concerned prophets of doom trying to snap the world out of a trance.
Viewers of the show already know that Sam is much more than a nag. She cares deeply for her daughters, who have been given a modern upbringing that emphasizes independence and freethinking. Nevertheless, Sam’s house is a claustrophobic swirl of incessant emotional needs; if it’s not an overblown crisis with one of the kids, it’s Phyllis’s gradual decline into dementia, which Imrie plays with puzzled perfection.
“Better Things” also deals with the unlikelihood that Sam will ever find a suitable mate — and for a minute, I found myself wondering if she and Sam Loudermilk might hit it off, if only they didn’t live in different worlds on different networks. (Sam and Sam? Probably not.)
In this week’s episode, Sam’s anger boils over when, on a family TV night, one of the girls callously flips right past the sight of their mother on the screen in a role. In her tirade about feeling underappreciated, Sam asks her children if they would even be able to think of anything nice to say at her funeral.
Considering it, the girls light candles and offer eulogies to their mother while she lies in the center of the room and pretends to be the body in a casket.
I hate myself and want to die?
Hardly. But is it too much to ask to be appreciated? To be noticed? Getting older by the minute, Generation X may well go to its grave still begging for just a little more love.
Loudermilk (30 minutes) premieres Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on DirecTV/AT&T’s Audience Network.
Better Things (30 minutes) airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.