There are plenty of TV shows devoted to millennials and “xennials” (the group between millennials and Generation Xers), but Better Things is one of the few to highlight the sandwich generation: middle-aged people who are raising children while also looking after an aging parent. As Sam Fox, series co-creator Pamela Adlon is being slowly—albeit hilariously—suffocated by her demanding children as well as her delightfully self-centered mother, Phil, played by Celia Imrie. Sam rarely handles all of the responsibility well, but she does handle it.
The oft-contentious relationship between Sam and her mother has taken a turn this season, as Phil has required more looking after, an arc that culminates with tonight’s episode, titled “Phil.” Watching someone’s physical and mental health decline should be completely unbearable, but Better Things finds a way to tell such a story without being overwrought—and with some humor, to boot. Imrie’s performance is crucial to that balance; she’s managed to make Phil infuriating while also gradually revealing her vulnerability. The A.V. Club spoke with Imrie about working on this surprisingly tender episode, emotional labor, and what she’s prepared to do to make this show a success.
The A.V. Club: What was it that drew you to this show, and to Sam and Phil’s unique relationship?
Celia Imrie: Well, it was a very lucky happening, as often is the case in our world. But I interviewed for Pamela on Skype, and we discovered so many things were the same in our lives. For instance, her real mother lives next door to her, as in the program. And I bought the house next door for my mother some years ago, so we both shared that experience. And there were all sorts of things we discovered going along that were by chance the same. Because actually, living next door to your mother is actually quite a rare occurrence. So we understood about that.
I think Pamela is so multi-talented. She’s directed all the [season] this time. I haven’t seen any of it yet, but it’s a total joy to play this part. I can’t believe my luck, actually. I became friends with Pamela’s real mother this year. We would go out to dinner together, which was rather marvelous.
AVC: So now that you’ve gotten to know her, have you taken any inspiration from Pamela’s mother?
CI: Oh yes, of course. But Pamela, I’ve realized, doesn’t tell her mother anything about what’s she’s written. So, I’m not really allowed to say anything to her [mother]. But she’s as wonderful a character as Pamela, actually. And it turns out I’ve just been working with—this is an extraordinary coincidence, but I had just been working at the Old Vic in London with Glenda Jackson, and it turned out that Pamela’s mother went to school with Glenda Jackson in Liverpool.
AVC: Wow, that’s quite a coincidence.
CI: It is, and it is all just a total joy. The only thing I wish is that I had more to do. You know, Pamela would raise her eyes to heaven when I would say, “Oy, I’ve only got one page in this episode.” [Laughs.] But now that I have a whole episode called “Phil,” I’m very happy.
AVC: This is the first Phil-centric episode and it opens with her criticizing everything about Sam, which is standard for her. But if you were coming into the show for the first time, you might wonder about their relationship.
CI: It might sound very harsh, but it is born out of such love. And you know, sometimes, it may be difficult to see—but Pamela’s real-life mother is so proud of her, I know that. And the way Pamela writes it, Phil being so critical of her daughter becomes breathtakingly funny. They have a wonderful banter together, because Sam is quite rude to her back. It’s all made out of great love.
AVC: Sam’s worst fears—that her mother won’t be able to take care of herself at all anymore—look like they’re coming true. Her brother is in the periphery, but Sam’s the one doing all the labor, emotional and otherwise. Is there an expectation for women to handle more of that load?
CI: Probably, I would think, yes. I think daughters are more aware of how the care must be. It’s a problem the world over. That’s what I love about Pamela—she addresses all the things we might feel uncomfortable about, and does it so you can find yourself laughing about it. But it’s serious.
AVC: We also hear Tressa’s [Rebecca Metz] story about her brothers leaving her to look after their ailing father, who just gave her the silent treatment.
CI: I have two nursing sisters in England, and they do say that the daughters are the more responsible, and realize that there is concern for an aging parent. Whereas often the brothers of the family don’t quite understand it, and sort of shy away from it. I think that’s absolutely as Pamela as written it.
AVC: There’s a larger story that’s been building throughout the series, of Phil “not being herself,” whether it’s losing her car or intentionally injuring herself so Sam has to take care of her. Does she really want that?
CI: I do think so, yes. I think her actions are quite childlike, really, just wanting the attention and feeling a bit lost. Often, I think, when people come to a certain age, they do go backwards into a sort of second childhood in some ways. But Phil has always been wonderfully childlike in other ways. She doesn’t like to be left out ever. There are moments later on in the season that you’ll see the family all goes off and she’s not included, and she doesn’t like that.
AVC: Phil has never been a picnic, but she’s becoming increasingly difficult for Sam to deal with. And yet, she can’t help it, which makes it so much more painful.
CI: Yes, I think so. Pamela really doesn’t dodge the bullet at all. She really makes it not altogether happy—it’s sort of left hanging. How she didn’t win that Emmy I will not know. You can tell I’m a mad fan. I’m just so lucky to be in this show. I think it’s extra special.
AVC: You have this wonderful moment at the end, where Phil tells Sam she loves her and is proud of her. What was it like filming that scene with Pamela?
CI: Quite hard not to burst into tears, actually, because I think the world of her. And what’s so clever is that she—in the very short time of each episode, she seems to take you to such wild places, doesn’t she? I mean, you’re literally laughing one moment and the next, it’s very poignant. And I felt with sort of very few lines, it was very, well I felt it was completely heartfelt. I hope it comes across that way.
AVC: Yeah, they spar a lot—which is very funny—but then they’re surprisingly tender with each other. How much does your relationship with Pamela inform the Sam-Phil dynamic?
CI: It’s a rather wonderful thing that you might just hit upon somebody and share the same sense of humor. Because if you do share a sense of humor, you’re halfway to a great friendship, I think. [Pamela] doesn’t take herself too seriously, and we’re really quite rude to each other now, because we know each other. Something that bothers me is the age that I’m supposed to be [in the show]. Pamela keeps bumping my age up. She keeps saying I’m supposed to be 80 now. And I said “enough of that already.”
But it is born from great affection, as I said from the beginning. So we can take a lot of risks. Pamela knows now that I will do anything she asks me. Truly, I will, including taking off my clothes, which I did in season one, where I was pruning the roses in my garden. She knows jolly well that I would do anything. And I couldn’t be more proud.
AVC: At one point, there’s a flashback where Phil tells Duke a secret about the “biggest mistake” that women in their family make. Will we ever learn what it is?
CI: I don’t think you will in the show. But it was a real thing, you know—it made Pamela laugh. What I ended up saying wasn’t scripted. I made it up, but I had to tell little Duke [Olivia Edward] something really, really awful. I had to ask her mother if I may, but it was to get her wonderful reaction. But the secret wasn’t in the script. I made it up.