AUGUST 26, 2020
The Fox Sisters could speak to the dead. In 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox (then aged 10 and 14, respectively) began to hear unexplained sounds in their Hydesville, New York, home. Over time, it came upon them that these sounds might be communications, that some unseen presence might be trying to speak, and, moreover, it might be trying to speak through them. This caused a great stir in Hydesville, and so the sisters were sent to live with their elder sibling, Leah, in Rochester. There, the Fox Sisters began their public lives as mediums, communicators with the dead, guarantors of the validity of the afterlife. It was the Fox Sisters who gave names and voices to the emerging Spiritualist movement in the United States, an occult religious belief that postulated that science and observation could prove the material existence of life after death and that, moreover, the living could communicate with and learn from the dead. The Fox Sisters proved this over and over in séances in their house in Rochester over a period of years.
But being a medium wasn’t just about theatrical performance or ministry. It was — in ways explored by historians like Ann Braude and Molly McGarry — a way for women to gain authority and autonomy that they were ill-afforded elsewhere. And, led prominently by mediums like the Fox Sisters, the Spiritualist movement quickly became a magnet for progressive political movements, including women’s rights and abolitionism. The Fox Sisters were holy visionaries, scientific authorities, and political lightning rods. To be a medium — even to speak on behalf of departed men — was to hold a position in society that was revered, esteemed, and listened to. To communicate with the dead was to hear and be heard at the same time.
FX’s extraordinary television series Better Things is also about a trio of Fox sisters. And at least one of them can speak to the dead. Duke Fox, the youngest of the sisters, is both excited and unsettled by her ability, which we discover some time in the second of Better Things’ four seasons (all on Hulu now!). Her older two sisters are aware of it. Her mom, Sam Fox, acts credulous about it, but only because she can also hear them. So can Sam’s mother and Duke’s grandmother, Phyllis, who’s both matter-of-fact and blasé about it. As Phyllis explains it, she’s a “caul-bearer.” When she was born, she was born with a piece of the caul, or amniotic sac, temporarily stuck to her face. This rare gift, in myth and legend, gives caul-bearers a greater sensitivity between this world and the other world, a second sight afforded by prolonged contact with the symbolic veil between life and death. Phyllis is at peace with her supernatural gift; Sam represses it like a traumatic memory; Duke is afraid of it at times, but growing into the power it gives her. The Fox sisters and mothers and daughters — the Fox women — are unusually sensitive to the worlds and histories that speak through their own bodies.
But Better Things is not a television series about three generations of powerful psychics. I mean, technically, it is, but only inasmuch as it’s a show about three generations of women and the things that happen to them. Sex, menopause, puberty, joint pain, sexual harassment, divorce, motherhood, daughterhood, Alzheimer’s, first loves, evolving gender presentation, bat mitzvahs, quinceañeras — mediumship is just one of those things. Ghosts of exes past, phantom aches, the specter of aging all waft through the walls of Sam Fox’s enviably lived-in house. They are as miraculous as they are mundane. Just like everything else.
In its purest form, Better Things is a comedy about a single, working mom and her three daughters, doing stuff in Los Angeles. It’s a show with the barest of premises and the grandest of scopes. There have been episodes in the run of this series that have left me absolutely breathless, things that creator and star Pamela Adlon conceives of and pulls off that are unlike anything that I’ve ever seen on television. The things this show considers important, the things it’s willing to withhold, the way it uses its realism to fundamentally reorganize the world — it does everything every other first-person, auteur TV series has ever thought it was doing.
It might be misleading to start with the hauntings of Better Things. To a casual observer, Better Things looks and acts a lot like the other vérité-style, observational half-hour comedies of the modern era. But ghosts have always appeared on Better Things. In the pilot episode, we meet Sam’s late dad, dressed in ’70s swag, speaking hard, empathetic truths to his daughter. It’s a classic televisual or filmic gambit, a reminder of the presence of the past. Given the broader aesthetic of the show, it’s hard to think anything of it. But it wasn’t until the third season, when we realized Duke could see him too — and that he scared her — that we realized Sam’s dad was a ghost, not just a narratively convenient projection of Sam’s subconscious. From the earliest of moments, Better Things presented haunting as a fact of life so ordinary as to not merit further mention. Sam Fox lives with ghosts, and it turns out, so had we.
But ghosts aren’t just tricks of the show’s framing; they are a key to its structure. Ordinary haunting is its narrative logic. One of the most impressive features of the show, for instance, is its patience with plotting and its impatience with exposition. The show moves so lackadaisically, explains itself so briskly (if at all), that one of the most common experiences of the show is realizing that a plotline dropped — and seemingly abandoned — seasons earlier, has in fact been ongoing. A conversation isn’t over simply because we’re not there anymore. In other words, to watch Better Things, you must understand that life goes on when the camera is off or even when it’s looking away. Sam meets new people, experiences new things, reunites with exes, and Adlon captures the moments of those arcs that matter to her, but not the ones that don’t. And so, returning suddenly to a long-forgotten bit character or a seemingly isolated event after episodes away can carry the electricity of a plot twist. We await these returns passively and receive them warmly or with dread as the case may be.
In the premiere episode of the third season, for example, the season when we learn Sam’s father is a ghost, we travel with Sam on a plane home from Chicago when there are some slightly dramatic technical difficulties. Sam Fox, as a rule, is disarmingly friendly with strangers, gruffly kind, uncomfortably frank—she’s the perfect passenger to keep her fellow travelers calm as there’s a cabin fire and an emergency landing. So everything’s wrapped up fine, and the sequence ends as Sam, Maneesh — the seatmate she’d just met — and several others deplane and head off to have a drink. And that’s that.
It’s the sort of vignette full of beauty and danger that most interests this show. But Sam doesn’t mention the event to her family when she returns to Los Angeles — she explicitly tells her friend Rich not to worry them with it — and it hangs over the episode. We watch every conversation, every conflict, every quiet moment in the knowledge that, very recently, Sam thought she might die. One of Better Things’ most consistent observations and thematic emphases is that, no matter how much empathy you have, no matter how hard you try to understand people, it is virtually impossible to know everything about another person. This isn’t a pessimistic insight; it’s actually a key to the show’s glittering optimism. Accepting the unknowability of other people, even and especially your friends and family, is the first step to being a good friend, a good parent, a good child. We cannot master our relationships. We have to live with their mystery.
So that’s what that episode is doing. The plane ride is a lesson about the ghosts everyone carries around with them every day that you can’t see and that you don’t take into account. But then, nearly a season and a half later, Better Things gives us a standalone episode of Sam attending the wedding of friends in New Orleans. Over the course of a day and night, she has magical experiences and racist encounters, she accidentally reconnects with a past lover, and she briefly considers leaving Los Angeles for Louisiana. Mysteriously, she spends much of it in the company of two men we’ve never met before. Or at least we think. It takes several minutes of watching Sam explore the French Quarter with these apparently close friends before we realize that this is the wedding of Maneesh, the man she met on that ill-begotten airplane. We have to discover this on our own and retroactively construct the texture of their now apparently years-long relationship for ourselves. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
It’s easy to imagine that a show like this isn’t particularly interested in narrative. Shows like this are concerned with observation and character not story and plot. But what Better Things knows is that to observe the world is to narrate it. Better Things is telling a story; it’s just doing so in ways that seem antithetical to other series like it. It’s a slow story about aging — for Sam, her mother, and the Fox Sisters — and it’s a loosely told story about how loosely our lives accumulate and grow. The discrete moments that make up this show are not randomly chosen; they’re chosen because they mean something, they matter. And we can neither observe nor describe the tonnage of what’s in them. No moment is ever over, no connection is ever severed, nobody is ever gone. We don’t know why they matter, or what they mean. Neither, seemingly, does Pamela Adlon. But she feels their weight, and passes it on to us.
Better Things dances along the edge of the supernatural, and its latter embrace of this aspect, its taking seriously of the spirit world in the past two seasons especially, has transformed the show in ways that might seem unrelated. What do ghosts look like in the world of a realistic, single-cam sitcom about the quotidian life of a single parent? Sometimes they look like ghosts, but sometimes they look like exes, sometimes they look like aging, sometimes they look like chance encounters. Sometimes, as we pop in and out of a world that looks familiar but that feels incomplete and strangely illegible, they look like us.
The sounds that the Fox Sisters heard were a hoax, of course. Kate would later even admit it. This information, though, does less to discredit them than it does to increase our sense of their power and highlight the sexist predispositions of historical memory. The Fox Sisters were not special conduits for the voices of men; they were creators. They controlled the voices they heard, and they controlled their audiences. P.T. Barnum, who exhibited and promoted the Fox Sisters later in their career, is remembered as “the Greatest Showman,” despite the fact that his autobiography is essentially a theory of hoax-craft, that he proudly presented his various frauds and lies as triumphs of marketing and design. The Fox Sisters are often remembered, conversely, as frauds. The raps were not real, the sisters were liars, their promoter was a genius, they were duplicitous girls. Their deceptions left them disgraced and destitute. But mediumship — its intense sensitivity, not to the phantom sounds of the dead, but to the voices and desires and possibilities of the living — is a form of art, of empathy, that’s way more complex than either the believers or debunkers give it credit for being.
Sam Fox is haunted, but so is Better Things. Adlon created Better Things in 2016. An acclaimed voice actor — most notably the voice of Bobby on King of the Hill — she had also been the writing partner and co-conspirator of Louis C.K. for many years. She co-starred in his aborted HBO series Lucky Louie, and co-wrote and was a recurring character on the lauded FX series Louie. Shortly after Better Things’ second season debuted — a show for which C.K. shares a “created by” credit with Adlon, and on which he and Adlon collaborated for two seasons — the now infamous allegations of C.K.’s sexual misconduct went broadly public, and FX terminated their relationship with him. Judging that Better Things was centrally Adlon’s creation, the network kept it in production (and, in fact, it was recently renewed for a fifth season). Adlon’s been open about the trauma of these events, her sense of shock and betrayal, and about her subsequent estrangement from her old friend. (From a critic’s point-of-view, I heartily recommend Emily VanDerWerff’s meditation on the way Louis C.K.’s actions contextualize our own responses to the show.) But this story has become a common one, not only in Hollywood, but in the specific area of creative real estate where Adlon makes her home. The genre of the auteur-ish single-cam confessional comedy, the painfully observed realist vignette cycle, is a genre currently composed of the canceled. Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, Lena Dunham — these artists exposed themselves and were then exposed, to varying degrees. Adlon is a survivor in a genre where many of her peers have self-destructed.
All the same, it’s also hard to disentangle the remnants of their relationship, the creative mark she bore on the shows that made him famous and the ghostly authorial mark he continues to bear in every credits sequence of Better Things. It would be a mistake to say that the focus of the show has shifted toward the ordinary abuses women face at the hands of men since the C.K. affair. The show’s been sharp on that score since the beginning. But, as Sam Fox — whose relationships with men tend to be dysfunctional, and whose boringly horrendous ex-husband hovers over them all — has grown over four seasons, the post-C.K. years have increasingly seemed even more interested in the idea of exorcism, movings-on spiritual and secular.
An episode of this past season centers around Sam’s tortured decision to speak up about the unsafe on-set work environment her male director has created, even as her male co-stars and a younger female executive stay silent. Another episode centers around an annual healing ritual performed by Sam and her best divorced friends. The friends all write letters to their exes, read them aloud, and then burn them in a communal fire. The letters are extraordinary documents, full of rage and detail, and the performances are gutting. (Another element of this show’s haunting genius is its casting of that-person-from-that-thing working actors. As these women let go of their pasts, we feel an inchoate intimacy with them from their background roles in our own televisual lives — Judy Reyes from Scrubs, Alysia Reiner from Orange is the New Black, Cree Summer from A Different World.) Sam’s letter is discrete. She burns it without confessing very much, without listing too many grievances, only gesturing at the well of rage and receipts beneath her minimal lines. There’s never been a “Louie” figure on the show, but it’s not hard to imagine the addressee of a few of those unsaid words. Then, in the final episode of the season, Sam, who’s been paying alimony to her scuzzy ex since their divorce, takes out a loan, cuts a check, and cuts him out of her family’s life forever. No more men lurking in rooms where they don’t belong. Begone, spirits.
But Better Things shouldn’t be defined in terms of Louie. Despite its frequent tenderness, that show’s imagination was limited by the joke-teller’s feel for hard beats and a very particular, emotionally-inflected brand of shock comedian identity politics. Louie, the character, was a man who behaved poorly in every situation but whose fundamental embattled decency we were meant to take as an article of faith. Louie was a nice guy who somehow managed to become victimized by his own bad behavior.
Better Things, on the other hand, is a humane meditation on the practice of decency. When Sam Fox is embattled, it is because she is endeavoring, truly, to do the right thing, and doing the right thing is very hard to do, especially when you don’t necessarily know what it is. Sam is by no means at peace — she’s angry and bitter and constantly frustrated — and the genius of Adlon’s performance is letting us know all of that while still crafting a character defined by a transcendent generosity of spirit. The show’s ethos reminds me of another idiosyncratic West Coast model of decency: Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s 1973 The Long Goodbye. Marlowe ambles through streets and bungalows and beaches, open to the world, skeptical of its seemingly fundamental sourness, trying to make sense of a senseless Los Angeles. “It’s okay with me,” he repeatedly mumbles as he affably confronts the ever harsher mysteries and hallucinations of his Los Angeles. It sounds like something Sam Fox would say.
“They’ll love you when you’re dead,” Sam’s friend Rich tells her when her eldest daughter callously clicks away from a television channel showing Sam as a younger actor. “I want it now,” Sam declares. “I don’t want to wait till I’m dead for my kids to appreciate me. Thanks. Go. Eulogize me … Let’s hear any feelings about me at all.”
This moment, in the middle of the third season of Better Things, precedes one of the most heart-swelling, sad, otherworldly episodes of television I’ve ever seen. In some ways, the most complex unseen world to which Better Things allows us access is the world of labor Sam performs as a mother and daughter. We see Sam prepare elaborate meals alone in her kitchen, we see her schlep thousands of miles around the greater Los Angeles area picking up and dropping off, we see her clean up after her kids, we see her work thankless acting gigs, we see her make sure her mother wears her special medical corset, we see her attend endless doctors’ visits of her own, we see her muster every bit of energy she has not to be devastated by her daughters’ teenage cruelty or her mother’s senile mercilessness — like the voices of the Rochester dead, or spirits floating through the ether, the procedural details of Sam’s care work can remain unheard and unseen to the people around her.
Better Things communicates them to us; Pamela Adlon is the medium through which these stories become tellable. But the weight they bear within the world of the show compared with the degree to which they are invisible to others within that world makes this moment in the third season so significant. Sam naming this erasure, acknowledging her own invisibility feels like it breaks a fourth wall irrevocably. All of a sudden, you look around, and the room is full of ghosts. So, fittingly, Sam dies. Or, at least, she pretends to.
Most of the rest of the episode consists of Sam lying in the center of her living room with her arms folded as her daughters and friends deliver eulogies to her. (Duke, because she’s afraid, lies next to Sam.) To be clear, this is an episode of television in which the protagonist and writer and director pretends to be dead while all of her supporting actors read short, emotional, devastating essays on the topic of labor and motherhood and care. In response to Sam declaring her own invisibility, the people who love her reveal what they’ve been able to see of her. The vision is both epic and incomplete. It’s a testament to both the boundlessness of love and the limits of perception.
There are ways in which this show balloons and expands and dissolves what TV shows are supposed or expected to do. A number of the greatest TV series of the past several years have been invested in breaking form this way, but it’s easy to overlook the degree to which Better Things belongs in their company. It isn’t a work of ambitious historical revision like Watchmen, a work of psychedelic convolution like The OA, or a work of occasionally surrealist deconstruction like Atlanta. And while it shares an interest in ghostly visions and women’s lives with the best show currently airing on TV, I May Destroy You, it lacks that show’s propulsive, fracturing energy. The experimental style of Better Things is less conspicuous, but it’s no less transformative. Better Things is, finally, a work of realism, but the “real” world of Better Things is stranger, spookier, and fuller of radiant love than most realist media would ordinarily encompass.
Spiritualism itself is a kind of realist discourse. It lives in observation and detail and the pretense of objectivity, but what it observes and the origins of the details it records exist within a vision of reality swollen beyond earthly borders. It requires the extraordinary senses of the medium to perceive, but its world is essentially ordinary. This world of ghosts and visions and knocks and raps, the Spiritualists insist, is simply the world you’ve been living in this whole time. Yes, it changes things to see and hear in these ways, and, yes, it provides answers to questions that seemed unanswerable. It is, in this way, a massive expansion of the ordinary. Your daily life, your work, your family, the friends and loved ones you’ve lost, the connections you forge and forget, the characters who step off screen and the ones who walk through unnoticed — these things mean so much more than you could have possibly imagined. Maybe ghosts are real, and maybe they’re not. Maybe the Fox Sisters could speak to the dead, and maybe they couldn’t. But the sacred everyday they imagined and to which they bore witness doesn’t need to be vouchsafed by evidence from the spirit world. The clarity of their voices is not dependent upon the intercession of the spirits. The Fox Sisters of Rochester spoke to the dead; the Fox Sisters of Los Angeles can speak to the dead, too. It’s okay with me.