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Review: ‘Better Things’ Returns, and Better

Season 2 of Pamela Adlon’s FX comedy is simply superb.

Pamela Adlon in Season 2 of FX’s “Better Things.” Beth Dubber/FX

The last thing TV needs is another loosely autobiographical single-camera show-business dramedy. As a society, we are fully stocked up on this genre. And now there’s even less of a reason to add anything new to the coffers, because it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better than Pamela Adlon.

Season 1 of her series “Better Things” was solid and smart, and Season 2, which premieres Thursday on FX, is a tremendous leap forward. The show has additional texture this season, with a stronger curiosity about its characters and its frankness and intimacy feel fully earned.

Ms. Adlon, who also directed every episode this season, is more grounded and anchored in her role as Sam Fox, actress and single mother to three daughters. Everybody wants something from her — her daughters are frequently petulant and demanding, and her British mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street, has no real boundaries. Sam’s friends can be oblivious and her suitors somehow never say the right thing.

“Better Things” is a collaboration between Ms. Adlon and Louis C.K., the show’s co-creator, one of its executive producers and the writer or co-writer of almost every episode. His show “Louie” picked up where “Curb Your Enthusiasm” had left off in terms of autobiographical, caustic comedies, but with a style and structure that was cinematic and often experimental. “Better Things,” on the other hand, has a straightforward format, so its big leap is one of sensibility: It’s neither neurotic nor self-absorbed.

Shows as lyrical, ambitious and character-driven as “Better Things” — “Transparent,” “Fleabag,” “Master of None” — often center on characters who wonder if the world will ever see or accept who they truly are. Not so here. Sam knows herself, and the people around her know her, too; her honesty can be brutal, but what it mostly is is efficient. On other shows, characters stare quizzically, sadly at themselves in the mirror. The moments where we see Sam drop her mask aren’t when she’s looking at herself: They’re when she’s sitting on the toilet. She’s not lost. She’s simply tired.

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Those moments of confident honesty, when Sam is fully unleashed, are where “Better Things” shines brightest. Episode 2, “Rising,” features one of the best TV monologues in years, with Sam ripping into a blah lover who has (foolishly) accused her of being mean. “I’ve hated you since the first minute of our first date, and I’ve been dating you for three weeks,” she says. “That is how nice I am!”

It helps that Ms. Adlon’s performance is matched with other strong turns, especially from the actresses who play her daughters: Mikey Madison as Max, the eldest, whose voice is always one tremble away from a sob; Hannah Alligood as Frankie, brainy and butch; and Olivia Edward as Duke, the youngest, a quiet co-conspirator to her mother and grandmother. (“The only one I really like is Duke,” Phyllis admits at one point.)

There is so much shouting and shrieking on “Better Things,” and some of that chaos bled energy out of Season 1. Here, the squabbling borders on symphonic, better modulated to draw out the distinctions among the wails. Max and Frankie maintain a constant “Mom? Mom? Mom?” set of requests, which Sam triages by largely tuning them out. But when Max delivers a serious “Mom, can I talk to you?” Sam snaps to action. Her mother exudes quirky English nastiness, but, in one of the season’s most moving arcs, is afraid to admit to herself or anyone else how adrift she’d be without Sam and the girls.

It’s scary for her, and a scary amount of pressure for Sam. “I’m just gonna do it ’til I can’t do it,” Sam tells her absentee brother about their mother’s care, evincing a bohemian practicality that generally leads her to take a compassionate path of least resistance. You can hate your daughter’s dirtbag boyfriend and still decide not to interfere. Things can be hard and O.K. at the same time, a kernel of wisdom not exclusive to women but popular among us. There’s beauty and humor and specialness in that battle, and no show is better at giving voice to it than “Better Things.”

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