There comes a time in any critic’s life where he must drop any guise of objective criticism and recognize that his “critical” reaction to a piece of art is purely the representation of a subjective emotion. Only the best of art can produce (and not manipulate!) that emotion. The rest of art—that vast mediocre median—is unemotive. It can be criticized objectively.
I have lost any kind of rational perspective concerning one of the recent episodes of “Better Things” (“Robin”). Its first five minutes are some of the most subtly potent moments in recent television memory. What is that feeling of witnessing brilliance? What is that emotion? (A spiritual satisfaction? An aesthetic bliss?) I am at a loss—my words have failed me.
Its opening moments are so wonderfully, lovingly simple. Sam (Pamela Adlon) lies in bed remembering meeting a man at a friend’s woefully horrid poetry show (“As I counted the bracelets / on my dying mother’s wrists / it was as if I was counting / her pain.”). Her two eldest daughters enter her room and the sounds of their voices, chatting lightly, linger in the distance. Tangentially, there is no distance between Adlon and Sam—there is no line between actor and character. That’s not to say that Sam is Adlon in an autobiographical sense. Rather, Adlon possesses Sam in a spiritual sense.
And yet as I write this, I realize that after reading these words, you, the reader, will never be able to experience the bliss of Adlon’s acting or the luxurious languor of the first five minutes of “Robin.” What is gorgeous is the surprise of it: The satisfaction of an aesthetic sense that, unbeknownst to you, is unfulfilled; the fulfillment of an expectation that you did not know you had. Now, as you watch “Robin,” you will know what that expectation is. It is a longing to have a memory that inspires those bed-ridden remembrances. A reminder of the infatuation of the initial moments of love. A certain fear and admiration for all parents—those that must both build and maintain their own individuality while teaching their children to do the same. I am deeply sorry—forget my praise as you watch.
Instead, remember my analysis. “Better Things” has managed to create—in a show with no male leads and over the course of only three episodes—a deeply nuanced, and more importantly original, examination of the idea of a “man.” The “repressed man” is its null hypothesis. (Both emotionally and physically.) But rather than simply depicting the man as an unavailable entity, Adlon explores the subtle implications of what that means for that man in the real world. In this episode, the titular Robin is her case study.
He throws the aged-up equivalent of a temper tantrum when Sam says that she will not be staying in the same hotel room as him during their spontaneous vacation: “This is a bit of an icepack to my balls.” He only wants to surprise her. What kind of monster doesn’t like surprises?
The archetype being fashioned here—not simply represented, but actually created—is the emotionally repressed sensitive man. (Here “sensitive” is not meant with a positive valence.) It is not that the emotionally repressed man is unable to feel emotion—it is that the emotionally repressed man is sensitive to emotion, hence the word “repressed,” and as a result, acts out on those emotions by throwing temper tantrums. Note Robin’s brooding post-fight persona. Note the way in which his empathy—his inability to understand that perhaps Sam does not appreciate the unexpected—is eliminated as he reacts to these newly created emotions. Sensitive, isn’t he? A similar image of a different man, with the same emotional failings, was constructed in the previous episode, “Rising.”
To put it explicitly, emotion rattles these men severely because it is unexpected. These men do not have the emotional toolbox to handle situations in when something goes wrong (see, for example, Sam’s criticism of her date in “Rising” and his subsequent inability to engage with her). Here the man, who may be expected to be emotionally “strong,” is reduced to a verbally challenged child when those emotions appear. The expectation of strength renders the man impotent in moments of emotional crisis.
How does a man remove himself from this narrative? “Robin” provides a simple answer that is, of course, harder to accomplish than to watch. He, the emotionally affected, must recognize the emotions that manifest inside him. He must give them a name. “All I could think of is that you were taking something away—ruining my surprise like I’m a little baby boy,” Robin says as he names his emotional affliction, noting what drives him to act like a “baby boy.” He must recognize that he is not the master of his own soul. He is merely a passenger, subject to the ravishes of its wily emotional caprice.
Yet this all occurs in the backdrop of those gorgeous first five minutes. Those aching moments of beauty. That brief testament to what it means to be an individual—what it means to be both a parent and a child and to gaze in horror at what they both require. That alone is enough thematic territory for any other television show. Then again, “Robin” transcends television.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at email@example.com.
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