A lot of series grow more ambitious as they go on, and FX’s Better Things is no different. Co-creator Pamela Adlon, who plays Sam Fox, the harried but hilarious mother at the center of the action, has taken on directorial duties for the entire second season, which kicked off with one of her finest moments ever. Season one saw Sam juggling her acting career, three daughters, vivacious mother (who doubles as a nosy next-door neighbor), as well as friends, doubts, and all the other things in life. She never pretended to have it all figured out, which made her all the more endearing. But season two has added a new wrinkle—a more viable love interest than we’ve seen in the past.
At least, single dad Robin certainly seems to have a chance at being more than an anecdote in Sam’s life. Henry Thomas, who plays Robin, recognizes just how tricky romance is, and how it’s made all the more perilous when you have to worry about your kids—if they’ll take to your partner, and when they do, if they’ll be hurt by your break-up. The child-actor-turned-Gerald’s-Game-star spoke with The A.V. Club about relationship disclaimers, Adlon’s work ethic, and being called on to play unsettling types.
The A.V. Club: The episode “Robin” gets its title from your character’s name, which is interesting because in the previous episode, the guy Sam had been dating for a few weeks was never named. So what’s Robin’s deal?
Henry Thomas: Well, he’s a single dad living in Los Angeles, and meets Sam one night at a spoken word/poetry reading thing. And he’s instantly enamored with Sam, and he wants to pursue a relationship. They have good chemistry, and they hit it off, but he stumbles early on, and that’s a red flag. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t tell you because it’ll give everything away. But it looks promising.
AVC: You mentioned red flags, and watching the episode, there are a couple of moments that send those up. The invitation is sweet enough, but there are bits and pieces that suggest maybe it was a bit too sudden for both of them. Is he overly excited to hit it off with Sam? Or is there something else going on?
HT: I think sometimes you have a single parent who isn’t used to dating, or doesn’t date often, and they meet someone. And they feel like it might be a good match, and maybe they just go all in too fast. They put all their chips on the table. The redeeming thing about Robin is that he realizes his mistake, and he tries to keep his side of the street “clean.” He honestly likes Sam, and just wants to pursue a relationship with her. I think that’s when it becomes too real for her.
AVC: Better Things has never shied away from showing us that Sam is still a sexual being, even though she has three kids. But we haven’t really seen her just date; single parents don’t do much dating on TV at all. The show is now getting into how complicated it can be.
HT: Yeah, well, that’s the conundrum, isn’t it? Because you have all of these wheels in motion in your life, as an adult, you know? At least, these characters—there are kids to be parented, there are jobs to be pursued. There are careers. Complex social situations. And then suddenly, you’re on a date, and you’re 22 again. But you’re a human being, and that’s always going to be the case. It’s not like you hit a mile marker one day, and you’re just like, “Ugh, done with that romance stuff.” I mean, maybe that happens, but I think it just evolves. It just becomes different when you get older.
AVC: There’s this darkly funny moment where Sam describes raising children—being responsible for three other lives—as “being murdered every day in a vague way that no one could be prosecuted for,” to which Robin responds by saying he thinks it would be easier to be a widower than raising a child who’s effectively been abandoned by her mother. Is that another red flag, or is he just opening up about something?
HT: Robin’s really just a stand-up guy. It’s interesting because the assumption here is that, when you’re looking at a single dad, you’re looking at someone who ruined his first marriage through infidelity or something. And now he’s sort of parenting the child of said ended relationship; it’s a half-assed measure, or out of obligation. But with Robin, the shoe is on the other foot—it’s the mother that doesn’t want to have anything to do with the child or the father, and she’s left. So he’s left on his own to raise his daughter, and because he’s a stand-up guy, he’s doing it. He’s going for it, but he’s lonely. He wants someone to share it with. I’ve found the character to be very endearing in that regard. It’s certainly not always the case, and I’m sure that it’s minuscule compared to the larger rule. But people like that exist.
AVC: Robin gets really offended by Sam saying she thinks they should book separate rooms—he thinks she’s throwing him out of the car, but she’s just pumping the brakes. But then over dinner, she tells him she wants to start over. It’s hopeful, but uncertain, so what do you think? Is Robin going to stick around?
HT: Robin really, genuinely cares for Sam, and he’ll stick around as long as Sam lets him. But she has a really hard time getting past that first weekend, and she has a really hard time letting in someone new. And he tries to reassure her that his “side of the street is clean,” so to speak. So the ball is in her court now. That sends her into a fight-or-flight mode. I can’t say too much, but he’s definitely in her universe now.
AVC: Sam’s always been really forthright on this show, but in the second episode, she took that to a whole new level. She won’t tell little white lies that to smooth over the rougher edges of an interaction. Both characters are very honest about how screwed up they are, which again, isn’t something we see very often on TV. That honesty could be ill-advised, but it’s obviously very important to them, right?
HT: Look, when you get older, it’s less about trying to sell yourself and more like listing all of the disclaimers. It’s like you’re a vehicle, and someone’s walking around going, “Oh yeah, you see that mark there,” and then taking note of the damage, because you don’t want to pay for it later. It’s kind of the same dynamic, where you might gush and say, “I’m really messed up. I have all these problems, are you sure you still want to go have dinner with me, or go to the wine country for the weekend?” But here it might go too far. We’ll see, though.
AVC: This is a show that leans heavier on the drama than the comedy, but it’s still very funny. Was the chance to do comedy important for you?
HT: Yeah, absolutely. because I find the writing to be very funny, and very intelligent, and very—it’s a lot of fun to play a guy who’s sort of a love interest rather than some guy who seems nice and later wants to tie you up in the basement. That’s the role I usually get approached with.
AVC: And what was it like joining such a tight-knit cast? Because if it works out, Robin will be right in the middle of the family dynamic.
HT: Pamela surrounds herself with a small but great cast and crew. They’ve all worked together for a long time; some of them worked on Louie. But they never made me feel like an outsider. It’s a good feeling, because I’ve been a guest on shows where that’s not really the case. You’re basically part of the landscape that’s going to change next week, so no one really gets attached to you. Pamela runs this ship, and it’s very important to her that everyone’s doing great, and everyone’s happy to be there. In fact, on the crew jacket, it says something like, “we’re all here, and we all work hard,” or something like that, and that’s one of the cheerleading chants that she leads every day, and all the crew says it.