The finale of the first season of Pamela Adlon’s FX dramedy Better Things ended with Sam (Adlon) and her daughters driving around in the family minivan, the girls gazing out the window while Duke (Olivia Edward), the youngest, squeezed her mother’s hand. The track playing in the car was Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” and all three of Sam’s kids sang along. It was a fitting ending for a debut series that had concerned itself singly with what women and girls go through, filtered through Adlon’s own experiences as a single mother and an actress. Sometimes it was funny (Sam memorably threw a teenage co-star out of her car after he tried to show her his penis, adding as a mom-like afterthought, “You can keep the jacket!”). Sometimes it was sad. But the show, dedicated to Adlon’s three daughters in real life, ended with acceptance. As Sam put it while addressing a female empowerment seminar at her daughter’s school, women have one thing in common: “We all bleed and we all suffer.”
If Better Things were just a comedy loosely based on Adlon’s life in Hollywood after 40, like a welcome heir to the highly underrated ’90s sitcom Cybill, it would still be spectacular, simply because Adlon is so sharp and so funny. But its ability to take a more wrenching look at womanhood made it one of the best and most distinctive shows of 2016. The second season, which debuts on FX Thursday, is somehow even better, directed in its entirety by Adlon, and written with Louis C.K., who co-created it. Dreamier and more wistful in style but with the same caustic sense of humor, the show takes more risks with structure and technique. Despite the fact that the writing in Better Things is a real gift—“Will you girls stop stealing candles for crying in the tub?” Sam pleads during an electrical outage—some of the most potent scenes are wordless altogether, as if to emphasize how many different things the show can master.