“Better Things” Taught Me How To Build a Home and Why It Matters
Formlessness gave rise to form when I took the time to design my home and my life
My last day in North Carolina, I got teary watching a junk removal company cart off my couch. I spied self-conscious from the window as it teetered on the trailer. It was a couch, a bland couch, designed to disappear, a grad school couch that I’d been dying to send on its way. And yet the moment felt significant, a bookend. I’d bought it the day I moved to town three years ago in a torrential August downpour. Now it would stay in North Carolina (as junk!) and I’d be on my way, leaving a home I’d unwittingly come to love. My stuff was boxed up, bookshelves and lamps sold on Facebook. I didn’t know when or whether I’d be back.
There was more to it, too. The night before the junk removers came, I’d sat there and cried through the series finale of Better Things. Some symmetry connected the show to this very small moment in my life.
Better Things is a plotless show that follows Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon), a mid-career actress in Los Angeles who’s raising three children and dealing with her mother who’s slipping into dementia. Each episode is comprised of several micro-episodes, Seinfeld-like in that it’s “about nothing” but more of a collage of the everyday things that compose a life. In the first episode of the show’s final season, Sam accompanies her daughter Max to an apartment showing, goes with her brother to a genealogy appointment, fights with her mom about purging her house, and celebrates her child Frankie’s friend who got into Harvard over dinner at a sushi restaurant, stressing to Frankie, “It’s important to celebrate life and life’s rituals.”
A subtle theme emerges in this episode to frame the show’s send-off. Sam teaches Max that you can’t just tell the management company, “I love it. I’ll take it,” minutes after entering the unit (and Max later bemoans how Sam’s credit is as bad as hers). With her mother, Sam insists that she should go through her boxes of junk and save mementos from her late brother instead of consigning it all to the dump. People are building their homes, and Sam’s is on the brink of change.
Most importantly, though, when Sam and Frankie get home from dinner, the power goes out. Upstairs, Frankie panics, calling, “Mom!” on a loop. Triumphant when the generator comes on, Sam knocks over the statue at the top of the stairs, a little man wearing a beanie whose head everyone touches when they pass, a family superstition. The shot of the smash is raw, the lighting high-key. The moment is catastrophic. Sam passes speechless by the wreckage, spitting with her fingers to her mouth to dispel the bad juju.
While it might not be much for plot, the significance of the crash is clear. Building upon seasons of theme and narrative structure, Sam’s home has been thrown into disarray.
I’ve never had an eye for design. I have no clue what “goes” together, and if you asked me what color my childhood bedroom was painted, I would genuinely draw a blank (maybe beige?). While interning for my home state’s monthly magazine in college, I wrote copy for their various special publications. Because I was an intern with time on my hands and access to Google, this meant that I was charged with writing descriptions of local artisans’ wares for the annual home design magazine. I described a cutting board as “handsome and serviceable.” I wrote the sentences, “Rustic design with a modern industrial edge? Yes, please,” and, “Who says you can’t have your eco-friendly cake and eat it too?” When I watched Better Things almost a decade later, home design was still an afterthought. Previously, I’d lived with a roommate who had visions of how our home should look so I deferred to her, or else I was in somewhat transient living situations without disposable income.
Facing the end of graduate school, Better Things changed that for me. My friend Jon and I had started watching it in the thick of the pandemic; now both the show and school were ending. Over the series’ five seasons, I’d always loved the Fox family home. Their house is beautifully Californian, meaningfully furnished with the beloved artifacts of Adlon’s personal collection. Decor is colorful, vibrant, eclectic: vintage Falkenstein lamps by Sam’s bedside, gallery walls, bright yellow chairs in the kitchen, the touchpoint statue at the top of the stairs (they all need it for the Feng Shui).
I’d always been open to adventure, finding a point of pride (and a moderate annoyance) in that I’d only ever lived in the same apartment for more than one year, once. There’s romance to being unencumbered, always ready to up and go. But something about the post-MFA move felt different. Every time one chapter of my life was ending, the next had already been arranged––fellowship to job to graduate school. Leaving the MFA, I was stepping into one of my life’s biggest unknowns. For years, the program had been a target, something to look forward to and organize my future. What would I have after graduating, to structure a “life as a writer,” which now seemed so formless? Single and without any clear, logical next steps in my career, it felt like I had to pack up my life, dog, and battalion of houseplants and find somewhere new for myself.
Unpeeled from the structure of the program and the friends who’d guided me through the pandemic, I started an album of apartment inspiration on my iPhone. I saved pictures of places I’d seen before and loved, along with photos from the set of Better Things, its patterned quilts and scarlet rugs, its yellow couch with mismatched pillows. Constantly, I found myself thinking of Sam, her squad of cool LA friends, her little laugh, and serendipitous encounters around the city. When she cooks, the kitchen is chaos––wooden spoons tapping pots, halved limes desiccated on the countertop, one of her kids comes in and she makes them taste. In the zone in her kitchen, making food for her family––it’s evident that these are all things she loves. Her whole house feels this way, and over and over again, her design choices influenced mine. I wanted creative chaos, colors, life, activity.
When I moved to Portland, Maine, I learned about things I’d never cared about––color coordination and poufs and washable rugs. I learned my style could be described as “transitional” and fell in love with the deals of Home Goods. Whenever someone told me that my place looked good, I was thrilled.
Even if I was moving into a life more alone, I was starting to see that there was a point to picking rugs with intention or spray-painting picture frames. I could bring life and joy into my home. This was why people cared about interior design. The sentimental part of me––a very large part––took to this too. My dresser? Jon and I found that at the vintage store on Castle Street. The ottoman? My mom and I made an enemy at Home Goods when she equivocated over the color and we scooped it up in the interim. These objects that constitute a home could be imbued with meaning.
Yet, I know it’s bigger than that. I don’t just like things because they make me think of people. Better Things doesn’t narrate the story behind every artifact. The sum is greater than its parts. Something alchemical occurs when I bring all these artifacts together.
As much as I love the aesthetics of Sam’s house, what really mattered to me was what became possible within it. Through her care and attention, Sam builds a home. In the show’s final season, this space becomes an important sanctuary for her gay friends and nonbinary child. She stumbles through early conversations with her child Frankie about their gender identity and asks for patience––she’s trying to get it right. One night, her gay friend Rich comes over for a celebration. Sam cooks a dinner for Frankie’s friends, and it feels like they’re all being welcomed into this space and their adulthood as themselves.
Better Things is organized around Sam having joyful, ordinary encounters with old friends, strangers in waiting rooms at the doctor’s office, or white-knuckling seatmates during airplane turbulence. Both in her home and in her life, she creates space for the life she wants to live and for others to join in, being themselves. Though the show eschews traditional plot, it collages a life that’s bright and real. As I pick through the stuff of a home that’s sunny and colorful, the collage reveals a lot of heavy moments in Sam’s life, too. So often I cried on that couch, watching her confront shifting sands in her friendships, disappointments in her career, the challenges of relating to and caring for her mother, her children coming into their own lives with their own attendant trials. And always, her house is somewhere they return. That her home is so resonant as a sanctuary is in large part because of everything going on outside of it. Designing my home base was especially potent because of my loneliness and grief over life’s changes. I was creating somewhere for myself to go back to.
As the beginning of the final season indicates, Sam’s home and life are undergoing a sea change. She acquires her British citizenship and the whole family makes a trip to London to visit relatives. On the trip, both Max and Sam’s mother decide to move to the UK, so Sam and the other two children return, quiet and uncertain. The finale opens with Caroline, Sam’s sister-in-law who everyone hates and fought with in London, giving her a new statue for the top of the staircase. The figure is grotesque––a gray and bloated ballerino with crystals jutting from his head––and Sam loves it. Caroline tells her, “You are the essence of this family. You keep it going.” With the new statue’s guidance, their home will be right again.
That night, Sam hosts her friends’ wedding in her home. All her friends come together for an evening, and Sam’s youngest daughter says to her, “You’re a really good person. You have a way of bringing people together and making people feel good, and I don’t know, I like it. I like you. I like the way you live your life.” Her daughter leaves “to take a shit,” and Sam takes one look at everyone assembled in her home and is overcome with emotion.
Before “curated” became a despised buzzword, synonymous with turmeric lattes, minimalism, and beige, it had a specific meaning. There’s real value behind curation, resonance to choosing what to bring into your life, whether throw pillows or friendships. Seeking to curate my life the way Sam does has provided me more direction than I could have anticipated. When I took the time to design my life and make my apartment into a home, form arose from formlessness. I saw this unknown chapter worthy of embracing and settling in. I started reconnecting with old friends. I’ve sought out the gay community, emboldened to go to book club or the gay bar alone. Maybe my expectations had come unyoked from a clear narrative, but I could approach life like Sam. Could I look back on my day and find a better thing?
A few months ago, one of my best friends from college got married in Los Angeles. The couple kept the guest list to only fifty people, and I was at once surprised and touched to be invited. I hadn’t seen May since we graduated, and now she was getting married.
I traveled to the city with another friend, reuniting for the first time since the pandemic; my long weekend an endless hang and catchup around Venice Beach and West Hollywood. The night before the wedding, we went to a welcome dinner in the couple’s backyard, tacos sizzling in the heat of Culver City. The evening was surreal, spellbinding. I sat beside May’s friend from Italy, someone I hadn’t seen in eight years, and while he rolled cigarettes, I felt all these periods of a life weaving, colliding. The night glimmered with the bliss of these unexpected reunions.
May’s high school mentor hosted the wedding in her gorgeous backyard in Santa Monica. The couple walked down the bocce court to the altar, where family members officiated the ceremony, everyone so joyous I could feel myself wanting to cry. May and her husband left personalized, handwritten notes on each place setting, and throughout the reception I caught up with old friends and met the people who were important to May’s life. I flew home the next day, convinced I had to move to LA. This was the life I’d been looking for on TV but better––it was real.
The wedding was homemade, thoughtfully curated, not for a life lived but the life that the couple wants to lead. May said that in the invitations, she thought about who she wants in her life, now. In Santa Monica, it wasn’t just that I felt how this could be one of Sam’s backyard parties with her eclectic assemblages of friends, but the intention behind it all was built around building––friendship, connections, intimacy, and love.
At the airport flying out, I got an interview request for the job I’d later take, launching me all the way to Maine. Choosing joy in that courtyard (dancing so emphatically an old woman clasped my arm at the end of the night and said, “You were the best dancer”), I was pointing myself forward. With some help from Sam––her vibe in the home and out––and the people and places I choose, I could find a way.