I have been thinking a lot about collateral damage; there has been so much of it lately. When a man is outed as a sexual predator, our first concern, of course, is for his victims – both the ones whose repulsive experiences we are reading about, and the others who have not come forward. Because we know, duh, that there are others.
There are other casualties of this abuse: In addition to the victims' loved ones – and they may suffer mightily – there are the wives and partners, children and parents, employers and business associates of the accused. They, too, suffer, caught up in the cross-hairs of the abuse – whether they knew or at least had an inkling, or were somehow unaware.
When a powerful man is outed, that collateral damage shoots off in so many directions. Some of the shrapnel pierces close and deeply – the humiliated wife or child. And some of it falls far afield – the casual fan who can no longer enjoy House of Cards or list American Beauty as a favourite film. And just wait; if your go-to rom-com guilty pleasure or your child's favourite superhero movie has escaped this creeping darkness so far, it won't for long. There are more names to drop.
The best show on TV right now, IMHO, is Better Things. Granted, I haven't seen everything on television, but I have decades of TV-viewing under my belt and it has been a while since I have felt this invested in a show's stories or this in love with its artful storytelling.
Better Things is co-created and executive-produced by Pamela Adlon – and Louis C.K. He has also contributed as a writer and director.
Please keep reading.
The show, for those who haven't seen it (probably many of you – more on that in a moment), is Adlon's baby; she writes, produces, directs and stars in it, which airs on FX. She plays Sam, a to-some-degree autobiographical character who is a single mother to three daughters, lives in Los Angeles across the way from her aging, drink-swilling, manipulative mother, was an actor growing up, and continues to make her living in the business, mostly doing voice work.
(Adlon, 51, is the single mother of three daughters and voiced the character of Bobby on King of the Hill.)
The show, whose season finale airs this coming week, is bold, funny, powerful, but subtle. It is the most authentic portrayal of contemporary women I can think of on series television.
In an earlier episode this season – this contains a spoiler – Sam is flown to her recently divorced friend's new boyfriend's estate for an over-the-top girls' weekend, only to escape alone to a nearby roadside motel. After she sits staring at the ocean for a bit, we see her rent a car and drive back to Los Angeles to pick up her daughters – all of whom had been placed, not necessarily willingly, in different care-giving arrangements. She takes them to the beach, where they frolic. This is where they belong: together. But in the final shot, we're back at the motel, where Sam is still holed up with her stash from the liquor store. It was all a daydream.
Maybe it doesn't sound like much, but it was breathtaking – I literally gasped when I watched it the first time; then I immediately re-watched it. If you've seen it, you know.
(This season's penultimate episode, which aired this past week, was set in White Rock, just outside Vancouver. "Ooh totems – Canada," Sam says, arriving at the airport. It was directed by Adlon and written by C.K.)
Adlon was also a regular on Louie, playing a character named Pamela, his friend who, at one point, becomes his girlfriend. One episode, now being re-examined in a pile of hot takes, has the Louie character attempt to sexually assault the Pamela character. "You can't even rape well," she exclaims. Cue the laughs.
This is why we can't have good things, I thought, when it all started coming together – or falling apart – this week.
When C.K. released a statement confirming the New York Times report about his abusive treatment of other women, he wrote that he would be "remiss to exclude the hurt that I've brought on people who I work with and have worked with [whose] professional and personal lives have been impacted by all of this," including those who work on Better Things.
Adlon later released a statement saying that she and her family "are devastated and in shock after the admission of abhorrent behaviour by my friend and partner." She expressed deep sorrow and empathy for the women and asked for privacy. "I am processing and grieving and hope to say more as soon as I am able."
The professional chips are tumbling for C.K.: FX says he will no longer serve as executive producer of the show (or Baskets, One Mississippi or The Cops). Netflix has cancelled his second comedy special, he's been canned from The Secret Life of Pets sequel and the release of his film I Love You, Daddy has been called off. And, come on, how can we ever watch Louie again?
There's a revolution and it's ugly and it's messy and it's fantastic. And it's about time.
In these difficult weeks of #metoo disclosures, I have held up Better Things as a masterful example of a series created by and about women. It centres around a strong, brave, no-nonsense – and hilarious – female character juggling three daughters in various stages of growing-up trauma, along with a deadbeat ex, a complicated mother, a Hollywood career, dating – and all the big and little challenges of motherhood (single or otherwise): the fights, the soccer games, the tampons. The show plays women's sometimes mortifying existence at midlife for laughs – but also presents the potential of its power. All without apology or exposition. It's too smart for that.
I have often wondered why Better Things has not become mandatory viewing; this is the kind of water-cooler talk I crave. Is it possible that the show's female-centricity has made it a less essential part of the conversation in an industry which we all know (we certainly do now if it was ever in doubt) is powered by testosterone?
If we want to support women as creative forces in Hollywood, I have told anyone who would listen, surely Adlon could be the poster woman. This is what women can achieve when given the chance.
But what happens when that chance includes – or comes about because of – the involvement of someone who used their power to sexually harass or abuse colleagues or subordinates – or those hoping to be? When garbage opens doors for good art and artists, should those doors slam shut once the stink finally rises and is revealed?
Make no mistake: this is Adlon's show. C.K. may share some of the credits – and is certainly a creative collaborator – but it's her genius that's all over it, that defines it. C.K. may have had the power to get it made, but she made it powerful. Last month, FX announced Better Things was being renewed for a third season.
Despite the shock expressed in Adlon's statement, people are, of course, asking: how much did she know? If so many of us – so far removed from that world – had heard whisperings of such behaviour, how is it that she did not?
I can't answer that question. But this is where we are: A talented woman has created a terrific show about women that women (and men) love. And now there's a giant cloud over it, as a result of a man's giant failings.
It's not the worst thing about this awful story; it's not even close. But I hate that the women we need in Hollywood – in the world – can become collateral damage, even if I love the reckoning that has led to it. I hate that a show that has been a delight for me, even a refuge – and an example of a feminist Hollywood win – is now something else: a question mark at the very least; worse, tainted; worst, irrevocably unwatchable and/or cancelled. This is rotten. It's revolting. We deserve better things.