Two of the best new shows on television debuted on the same network in the first week of September 2016. One was created and stars a black man. The other was created and stars a woman. The white man hierarchy of Hollywood must be wetting their beds. And they should be. FX’s Atlanta and Better Things aren’t perfect, yet. But they can be. And that’s a good thing.
Donald Glover’s new FX series Atlanta isn’t a drama. It isn’t a comedy. It, like many shows, transcends those arbitrary genres. It also managed to transcend all expectations. The actor/writer created the series to explore the culture in Atlanta over a long-gestating period. Hype could have crushed any other freshman series, but Atlanta accepted the hype and produced one of the best debuts in recent memory.
Do not expect anything traditional. Glover wrote the debut (“The Big Bang”) like the beginning of an indie film. Its pacing is original, its characters are raw, and its cinematography is refreshing. His all black writing staff, which includes his brother Stephen (who wrote “Streets on Lock”), has already created a world that feels real.
Let that sink in. I mentioned the series has similar elements to Lena Dunham’s Girls. It’s obvious. However, Atlanta is superior because no one is questioning how unrealistic characters’ financial situations are or how their actions seem out of steps. Over the course of two episodes, everything felt real. Glover’s team films in Atlanta and its surrounding areas. It allows the settings to breath life into every scene. Nothing felt forced at all.
Not even the plots, which didn’t sugarcoat anything. Glover’s Earnest Marks struggles with his ex-girlfriend and their baby. He struggles with money. He struggles with his parents. He struggles. Even the plot point that clearly is meant to kick the series off doesn’t come until the very end and there is still a price to pay for it. Earn spends the majority of the first episode trying to convince his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a rapper who raps under the name Paper Boi, to let him become his manager.
Without spoiling too much, he manages to seemingly achieve his goal. However, (SPOILER) the duo end up in jail the next episode after a late night shooting. Paper Boi gets bailed out quickly because he is already in the jail system. Earn isn’t so it takes him the entire episode before he is released. While Paper Boi finds moments of sober clarity, Earn is treated to a world of characters he has never seen before.
Donald Glover could have made Atlanta something Hollywood wanted. He went with realness instead and gave Hollywood what it needed.
Watch the premiere episode of Atlanta below:
Better Things makes TV better
I called Better Things the female version of Louie in my September preview. I was wrong. It isn’t just putting Pamela Adlon into Louis CK’s role and moving it across the country. Adlon’s show (which was co-created with CK) is about gender roles, parenthood, careers, and so much more. It is more traditional that Atlanta, but similar to its FX brother, Better Things refuses to be boring.
Adlon’s performance as Sam an actress, who is also a single mom juggling her home life which includes three daughters, feels exactly like it should be. We live in a time where casting should feel organic and it is expected that every single role is believable. It’s easy to say this role is a cop out because Adlon is sort of playing herself. However, that shouldn’t deter people from recognizing how important this role is.
I’m not a single mom, obviously, but the show made that world I know nothing about extremely relatable. The opening scene begins with her youngest daughter Duke crying in a mall and a lady is staring at her. Sam looks over and says that the lady should either buy her daughter the earrings she is crying over to get her to stop, or to stop staring. Yes! That’s exactly what I feel I would say once I’m a single mom.
Those moments are what build this episode beyond the traditional pilot. There is no trope trying to pull us in. We could say the logline for the debut was “Sam is a struggling actress and single mom. Here’s a day in her life.” That’s what every episode is going to be about; hopefully. I don’t want these episodes to have a bottled theme that shows eventually fall into.
My favorite aspect of the show was how the 30 minutes were really comprised of little vignettes that add up to a full life. It’s different than Louie in that more happens. Adlon throws her character through a lot of situations that show the audience exactly who Sam is and what to expect from her and the rest of the show this debut season.
Get an inside look into Better Things below: