Each day this month (assuming I don’t get busy or bored!), I’ll reflect on a tiny sliver of pop culture that I enjoyed or appreciated this year — scenes, shots, gestures, verses, sights, sounds, moments. Today: two episodes of half-hour shows that pushed the boundaries of the form.
One of the most talked about TV moments of 2015 came at the end of the fourth episode of HBO’s True Detective: a violent and visceral eight-minute raid scene, presented in a single uninterrupted take. Some observers praised director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the technical virtuosity required to pull off a filmmaking feat of such complexity, while others dismissed the sequence as a visually dazzling distraction that lacked narrative weight or thematic depth. The blatant showmanship of the camerawork in that scene served only to flatter the audience, not to deepen its experience of the unfolding story, those critics argued.
I saw two sequences on TV this year that reminded me of that True Detective debate, but neither one got the same attention, and neither one inspired a similarly vigorous discussion. FXX’s You’re the Worst devoted most of an episode to an uninterrupted shot that carried the camera across a wedding party venue to several overlapping conversations. One night later, Pamela Adlon’s FX star vehicle Better Things dedicated a third of its first season finale to a scene showing a typical whirlwind morning in the household of Adlon’s loosely autobiographical character Sam Fox — three daughters hollering and whining; multiple visitors cluttering the messy front foyer; flirtatious messages distracting Sam from her hustle. Both of these sequences showcased their respective shows’ most appealing qualities, and both employed a technically challenging stylistic technique in service of an idea and an impact. Both were a joy to watch, even at their saddest moments.
This year’s third season of You’re the Worst had a few episodes that didn’t quite work, and a few storylines that seemed to bounce from outright farce to tragicomedy and back without much subtlety. But on the whole, the show doubled down on its tradition of shaking up the formula of a traditional cable half-hour episode, whether it was “Twenty-Two,” a nervy spotlight on the PTSD-addled veteran Edgar (Desmin Borges); “The Seventh Layer,” a road trip detour featuring none of the show’s regular cast; or “The Inherent, Unsullied Qualitative Value of Anything,” largely set at the aforementioned wedding.
That last episode, a pre-cursor to the final episode, drew its power from a conflict between the show’s central couple, Jimmy (Chris Geere) and Gretchen (Aya Cash), who had recently begun to question whether they belonged together and what they had seen in each other at the start of their relationship. The underlying tension of the wedding shenanigans is the looming threat of discord in the show’s fundamental partnership. The supporting characters have plenty of drama of their own, as well: Lindsey (Kether Donohue) can’t wait much longer before telling her husband (Allan McLeod) that she had an abortion without alerting him beforehand; flamboyant rapper Sam (Brandon Mychal Smith) is worried that sending his friend and colleague Shitstain (Darrell Britt-Gibson) into married life will spell the end of their companionship; and cracks start to show in the relationship between Lindsey (Collette Wolfe) and Edgar (Desmin Borges), who’s recently found professional success in comedy writing and has taken to it more than a bit selfishly.
That’s a lot of story and baggage for one episode to handle, but director Wendey Stanzler and credited writers Franklin Hardy and Shane Kosakowski keep the action moving by gliding effortlessly from one story to another to show that all of them are connected, both because the characters know each other and because their problems are emblematic of the show’s larger concerns. All of the characters harbor feelings that they’re afraid to share for fear of being shot down, and afraid to acknowledge for fear of being forced to confront them. The wedding is like a pressure cooker in which tensions come to a boil. And for Gretchen and Jimmy, the climax is the crushing revelation, conveyed through a split-screen that marks the first cut since the wedding sequence began, that they might have committed to each other because they thought it would be right for themselves, and not because it actually is. This development threatens the foundations upon which the show is built, and makes for compelling drama even amid glorious comedic highlights like Lindsay finding out that her prenup will afford Paul all of his money should they pursue a divorce and Sam melting down in a conversation at a bathroom sink.
The Better Things sequence — part of an episode co-written and directed by series creator and star Pamela Adlon, who wears many hats with ease — is shorter but no less pointed. Set to the roiling, insistent hum of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” the scene presents an ordinary morning in the Fox household, conveying the chaos of quotidian family life and the particular stressors that make Sam’s parenting successes all the more impressive. Her daughters hound her for being too busy, her visitors inadvertently add to the list of small tasks she has to accomplish, and she can’t even find time to send a naughty selfie to her current sexual partner, who she’d get to enjoy much more if it weren’t for the roles of motherhood that she’s duty-bound to carry out. This sequence, which is Better Things in a nutshell, doesn’t shy away from Sam’s rough edges, or those of her daughters, but it gives them dignity by allowing them to be the driving force of the show’s momentum — complex characters with contradicting impulses.
The episode that follows is similarly magnificent, building to a touching moment: the oldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison) revealing to her mother that the middle daughter Frankie “is a boy,” despite Frankie’s halfhearted assertions to the contrary. The season wraps with Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” a song about a women’s routine burdens. With Adlon at the helm, Better Things helps realize those with warmth, levity and grace.
There are a few reasons you won’t hear as much about these two standout sequences as you did about the epic one-take on True Detective season one. True Detective had a bigger audience, a more rabid online following and higher-profile bona fides than either of these shows do. The primacy of the half-hour is only beginning to take hold among TV writers and thinkers, which means both You’re the Worst and Better Things have to fight for coverage with the likes of flashier shows like Stranger Things and Westworld. Perhaps most significant, though, is what the shows chose to do with their unconventional gambits. True Detective opted for hyperviolence, escalating suspense through close encounters and near misses. You’re the Worst and Better Things eschewed cuts to shed light on aspects of the human condition that can be uncomfortable and messy to depict and to watch. These shows trust their audience to find layers of meaning, and a few laughs and groans, amid the chaos in the frame.