You might have heard there's a TV show having its series finale tonight. While you are waiting for it to air, may I offer these two shows for your binging pleasure?
Better Things just finished its third season, and has already been renewed for a fourth in 2020. At first, Better Things was associated with Louis C.K., who with Adlon was the co-creator and writer of the show. After he admitted to sexual misconduct, he left the show, making the third season a question mark. But it has always been a show based in part on Adlon's life, she had already directed every Season 2 episode, and the third season ended up being perhaps the best yet. Adlon wrote or co-wrote 8 of the 12 episodes, directed them all, and, of course, starred in them all. She shines in every capacity.
Better Things is the story of a divorced mom with three daughters and an aging mother who lives next door. Adlon's character, Sam, is an actress in Los Angeles who does voice over work, commercials, bit parts in movies, whatever comes her way. She also teaches acting classes and is able to provide for her family in relative comfort. There are male characters, but the core of the show is and has always been the five women/girls in the family. Adlon and her actresses have created sisters who are believable and clearly delineated. Each has her own good and bad parts, and they aren't necessarily interchangeable. The varying ages of the girls also offers opportunities for different stories: Max, the eldest, who goes off to college at the beginning of Season 3, Frankie, the middle child and the most troublesome, and the youngest, Duke, who is still mostly lovable. Meanwhile, Sam's mom, Phil, is at the beginning of something resembling Alzheimer's. Sam thinks she has to take care of all of them. Her heart is usually in the right place, but she doesn't always do the right thing, nor do her daughters act like something out of The Brady Bunch. They can all be infuriating, but Adlon never loses sight of their core decency, even when they are acting terribly. In this, she is helped immensely by her cast, all of whom were unknown to me: Mikey Madison as Max, Hannah Alligood as Frankie, and Olivia Edward as Duke. Celia Imrie, who I do know, rounds out this great cast as Phil.
The writing is excellent, the direction is excellent, the acting is excellent, and the show gets better every season. I can't recommend it enough.
Here is my favorite scene, from the Season 2 finale ... Max prepares something special for Max's high-school graduation:
Then there is Fleabag, a British series which just ended its second and final season. It felt like Fleabag came out of nowhere, yet it was such a success that, even though Season One ended in such a way that nothing more was needed, when Season Two arrived, we were delighted to find out it was, if anything, even better. There was no way Season Two would "come out of nowhere" ... creator/star/writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge will never be anonymous again. Since Fleabag began, she has done the voice for L3-37 in Solo: A Star Wars Story, and developed the smash TV hit series Killing Eve. Now she's been hired to co-write the next James Bond movie. Meanwhile, as luck would have it, the woman who plays the wicked stepmother in Fleabag, Olivia Colman, won a Best Actress Oscar between the making of Seasons One and Two.
Fleabag is more tragicomic than Better Things. The latter tends to be a bit closer to "real life" than Fleabag, which is both hilarious and crushingly sad whenever the occasion calls for it. The first scene of Season 2 is an excellent example:
Yes, Fleabag makes frequent use of breaking the fourth wall. It works wonderfully, in part because Waller-Bridge has such an expressive face that she conveys multitudes even when she doesn't say anything. We become her partners in crime, so to speak, connecting to the character in much deeper ways than is usual for a "comedy". In one of the most telling moments in the show, Fleabag responds to a therapist's question about having someone to talk to by saying oh yes, and then looking at us and winking ... sadly, it appears the audience is her best friend:
If I had to choose which of these shows to binge first, I'd go with Fleabag, which only has 12 30-minute episodes.
A personal note, which seems appropriate given the personal nature of these shows. My wife avoids both of them, and most similar shows, for that matter. She said Fleabag is just people blabbing. I said it isn't just blabbing, it's emotion, to which she replied that she thought it interesting that I like emotional shows. I recalled the above scene with the therapist, and realized that I have the reverse problem of Fleabag: my friends are the characters in the shows I watch. I feel like I know Sam and Fleabag better than I know the real people in my life.