Every episode of Pamela Adlon’s television series Better Things finds Sam Fox, the maternal protagonist, engaging lustily with a motley crew of kids, old friends, film industry buddies, and people she accosts at the supermarket. In Sam’s world, shopping is interactive play, cooking is magical, and caregiving can be hot. The family dwelling is not only protective but porous to the elements and wider world. Rain leaks in, wind blows through, guests make themselves at home, and unfamiliar children appear in the living room with guitars. (“Who are you? Never mind. Keep playing.”) There is even an occasional ghost. For Sam, who never misses a chance to bond with a stranger, mothering opens onto a broader sociality.
As a normative identity, motherhood swallows women whole. The ideal of the biological mother as all-nurturing, self-sacrificing, chaste guardian of “family values” has long served to stigmatize childless women along with those whose maternity is seen as somehow deficient or deviant. Overvaluing one version of motherhood and devaluing others (according to biases of class, race, sexuality, etc.), the norm requires all mothers to bend before the feral juveniles in their care. Any desire or ambition on the mother’s own behalf—the same self-concern expected of Western men, including fathers—is seen as a moral failing. Any passion or genius for matters beyond mothering is irrelevant. And indeed, even in carrying out maternal duties, too much passion or genius, too much hungry and expressive personhood, runs up against convention.
In the past, I’ve attempted to jar us out of greeting-card motherhood with the phrase “sodomitical maternity.” I meant “sodomitical” in the broad sense of “non-normative, non-procreative sexuality . . . in excess of the dutifully instrumental.”1 Putting it beside “maternity,” I asked us to admit that caring moms may yet be deviant, appetitive, and obscene. Bottom line, the sodomitical mother refuses to be sanitized or simplified. Her identity includes but is not reducible to maternity. She combines nurturing with a defiance of norms (sexual or otherwise) and a defense of varied pleasures (for herself and others).
As I write, mothers desperate for baby formula are shamed for failing to breastfeed. Maternal indignation is invoked to shut down discussion of race and gender in the classroom. Parents are criminalized for supporting their trans kids. Most far-reaching of all, with the Supreme Court’s trashing of Roe v. Wade, compulsory motherhood may soon be the law of half the land. At a time when it’s hard to keep up with the latest gambits for policing maternity, mothers who defile the norm are more needed than ever.
Better Things, which just completed its fifth and final season, was created and directed by Adlon, who also plays the lead character.2 Sam is a single parent of three and a working actor in LA; her own forgetful mother is installed next door.3 Sam’s version of sodomitical maternity begins with the nonconforming way she occupies her body. Like the show itself, she has little use for the niceties of femininity. There’s a slouchiness to her bearing, a heaviness to her tread, a huskiness to her loud voice. With her boots, sagging jeans, jackets, and occasional baseball cap, she’s more punk kid than sophisticated divorcée.4 At the same time, Adlon is determined to give us the Full Monty of menopausal embodiment, from Sam’s thickening torso and surprise period to the messy hassle of a colonoscopy. In one of several bathroom scenes, episode 7, Season 5 opens with Sam seated on the toilet, losing track of time as she scrolls through her phone.5
Sam’s language—unfiltered and “fuck”-laced—is a further assault on polite sensibilities. Its irreverence is underlined by the running commentary of her body language: sarcastic eye rolls and drawn-out “ohhhs” of mock compliance; deeply pained groans and exasperated sighs; deadpanned looks of disbelief. As a professional voiceover actor, Sam is also a walking compendium of accents and personae. She drops into cockney to call out grandiosity, uses silly voices to woo petulant teenagers, and ups the volume to counter a scary man on a trans-Atlantic flight. Sam is, in short, a mother who contains multitudes, all of them outsize and many of them unseemly. Men on TV get to be huge, sardonic personalities all the time; women on TV occasionally do, but usually at a price and only if childless. The Sam character insists that women can be rude, abundant, and brilliant, even as mothers.
Alongside her familial role, Sam is given an extensively detailed work life. We see her recognized by fans, inspiring schoolkids to be gaffers or animators, dealing with her agent, earning her keep in studios and on set. In episode 6, Season 5, she keeps her cool as guest director of a long-running TV show. Better Things is a kind of love letter to the industry—an homage especially to those plying their craft in smaller roles and behind the scenes. Such substantive professionalism in a maternal character is rare enough. But Adlon’s most original contribution may actually be her passion for the mundane project of motherhood—a project she reveals to be vast, formidable, fluid, and fascinating in its own right.
At times, Sam’s pleasure in her mouthy, free-ranging children and their multi-racial, gender-queer community of friends feels golden. At other times, Adlon is brutal in exposing the relentless, thankless nature of maternal labor. Her character’s three children (two are daughters, one is nonbinary) are fierce and maddening, frequently unkind to her, and fitfully appreciative. If Sam is sometimes self-sacrificing (so what if she had a brush with death? Frankie [Hannah Riley] needs help with their homework) it’s not because she wants to be. It’s because, as a single parent, she has no choice. In the words of eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), while briefly subbing in for Sam, “This mom shit is not for pussies.”
But even while insisting on maternal struggle, Better Things shows Sam imbuing conventional tasks (shopping, cooking, caregiving) with a gusto and creativity that manages to reinvent them as acts of self-expression. We see her wheeling around a grocery store with abandon, piling up a crazy assortment of items—lobsters, bitter melon, “fun” plastic bowls—all the while chatting up clerks and other customers. Sam’s MO here is the opposite of a shopping list; it’s the triumph of want over need.
In Sam’s world, shopping is interactive play, cooking is magical, and caregiving can be hot.
Recurrent cooking sequences are equally tactile, joyful, and improvisatory. Tossing salt over her shoulder, Sam chops, simmers, and tastes, producing earthy food-to-be-shared almost in real time.6 One scene in episode 2, Season 5 intersperses shots of Sam whipping up sloppy joes with others of her sorting through baseball cards, nailing the character’s mix of kitchen wizard and masculine tween. Earlier in the episode, having been stuffed into high-femme drag for a period drama, Sam bravely quit that project. Now, she affirms her uncorseted self by presiding over card table and hot stove, laying down a card here, tossing in some seasoning there, cursing when she cuts herself (“Fuck you, garlic”). Her clothes are loose, her face mobile with concentration and pleasure. In the end, her kids walk out on their planned dinner. Feeling hurt, Sam recites her day’s accomplishments to the closed front door, pours herself a drink, settles down in front of the TV, and takes a large bite of sloppy joe.
Along with its extravagant, self-indulgent images of shopping and cooking, Better Things includes scenes of nurturing pushed beyond the usual bounds. In their ardor and intimacy, these mother-daughter moments evoke and actually come to displace Sam’s sporadic sexual encounters with men. By Season 5, she is firm in declaring herself “muy contenta sola!” More accurately, Sam doesn’t need a Hinge profile because, as she explains, she’s already dating her family. This includes her difficult mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), who at one point pursues Sam to San Francisco, ambushing her at a restaurant by sending over a drink and waving flirtatiously from the end of the bar. Sam’s brother is only half joking when he describes their mother as Sam’s plus-one, significant other, Mom-boyfriend.
Likewise, in one of my favorite scenes, an extremely drunk, tearful Max crawls into Sam’s bed, straddling her and exclaiming, “Mom! Mom!! I love you so much, Mom! I love you SO much, Mom. Mom!” Hugging Sam, holding her by the face, stroking and shaking her, she continues passionately, “Listen to me! Listen to me!! Mom. Mom! I would DIE if you died. I would kill myself! I would KILL myself!!” Kissing and licking her mother from jaw to ear, she concludes before collapsing, “MOM! DO NOT DIE!!” Sam makes a show of wiping away the wet, but she is clearly touched. Unzipping Max’s boots, Sam lies beside her first-born and gently pulls the hair away from her face. This amorous interaction comes at the end of episode 7, Season 5, which features Sam’s best friend Rich back with old flame Alan; Frankie and their friends cross-dressing for a party; Sam promising shelter to a boy with homophobic parents; and Frankie’s oldest pal coming out as trans.7 Capping off the sequence, the love scene between Max and her mother may be the queerest moment of all.
Wrapped in essentialist clichés, motherhood is an awkward topic for feminists. The challenge is to own it without implying that women are destined to be mothers and that mothering is best done by women; to acknowledge women’s unpaid labor while urging its redistribution across genders; to generalize while recognizing the variability of women’s circumstances; and to value caregiving while decoupling it from asexual selflessness and pious conservatism.
Better Things celebrates a vision of motherhood pitched against the nuclear family, with its narrow gender roles and fenced-in private sphere. In keeping with this vision, the show ends with a breach of the fourth wall, as dozens of characters, major and minor, take their bows singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” For once, however, Sam is not among them. As she drives off in her El Camino, meteors flaring overhead, the show gives us a mother in yet another guise—a person in motion beneath a lively night sky.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- Susan Fraiman, Cool Men and the Second Sex (Columbia University Press, 2003), p. 135. Insisting on maternal anality (in a debate with Freud and queer theory—long story), I sought more broadly to challenge the erasure of mothers from textbook scenes of sexual pleasure. (Note that MILFs are fantasy objects in the male imagination, not desiring subjects in their own right.) ↩
- Better Things originated as a collaboration between Adlon and Louis C. K. In response to #MeToo revelations, Louis C. K. was fired after Season 2, at which point Adlon assumed complete control and put together an entirely new writers’ room. Though he continued to be credited as cocreator, Louis C. K. had zero involvement in seasons 3 through 5. Interestingly, with him gone, the narrative’s interest in potential male partners for Sam dwindled and was essentially renounced by Season 4. ↩
- Other shows centered on single working mothers range from Julia (NBC, 1968–1971), The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970–74), and Kate & Allie (CBS, 1984–1989) to Gilmore Girls (WB/CW, 2000–2007), One Day at a Time (CBS, 1975–84; Netflix, 2017–2020), and Mom (CBS, 2013–2021). Most are network sitcoms with canned laughs and safe storylines; although (or, perhaps, because) they focus on female-headed households, they’re wary of offending. Adlon’s brazen dramedy, based on her own life, is one of several recent shows to break this mold. On antiheroic motherhood in SMILF (Showtime, 2017–2019), see Sarah Hagelin and Gillian Silverman, The New Female Antihero: The Disruptive Women of 21st-Century US Television (University of Chicago Press, 2022), pp. 179–202. On trans mothering in Pose (2018–2021), see Annie Sansonetti, “Trans Women and Children on TV,” Public Books, May 5, 2022. ↩
- Adlon launched her career playing boyish girls and went on to voice such school-age boys as Bobby Hill on King of the Hill; her alienation from traditional femininity runs deep. ↩
- For more on recent shows portraying the gritty reality of women’s everyday lives, see Susan Fraiman, “Bathroom Realism and the Women of Cable TV,” Signs, vol. 47, no. 3 (Spring 2022). ↩
- On the show’s signature cooking scenes—real meals made largely on set and often enjoyed afterwards by cast and crew—see Rachel Syme, “How Pamela Adlon Makes Borscht on Better Things,” New Yorker, March 23, 2022. ↩
- Also in this episode, Rich reveals to Sam that he helped Max through an abortion. It’s long been clear that Rich is effectively the children’s father; in this instance, much to Sam’s chagrin, he has assumed her role—making him, we might say, another version of the sodomitical mother. ↩