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Pamela Adlon on how Better Things is redefining the coming-of-age comedy

Pamela Adlon on how <i>Better Things </i>is redefining the coming-of-age comedy
Graphic: Allison Corr, Photo: Lisa O'Connor (AFP/Getty Images)
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As the co-creator turned sole helmer of Better Things, Pamela Adlon can count herself among TV’s auteurs. The actor/writer/director/producer has always been the creative force behind one of FX’s best dramedies. The mix of flustered and steely that is Better Things protagonist Sam Fox, who is a working actor and working mom? All Adlon, who has navigated her way through a career that spans decades and includes countless voice roles, all while raising three girls. The show’s focus on three generations of women who alternately attempt to pass on what they know and reject those lessons is also inspired by Adlon’s life, but the inviting chaos that we see on screen is its own distinct creation, the result of her taking on directing duties and co-writing episodes with Sarah Gubbins, Joe Hortua, and Ira Parker. Adlon’s never been just the star of Better Things—she’s a leader.

The A.V. Club spoke with Adlon by phone—on Valentine’s Day, because, as she put it, “work is my valentine”—to discuss her vision for Better Things season four, which premieres this week on March 5, and for coming-of-age comedies, which she aims to redefine.

The A.V. Club: There is obviously a sense of continuity in your show, but it never feels like you’re hanging on to anything from the past. How much of a foundation is there when you break each new season?

Pamela Adlon: It’s so interesting that you said that because today I started thinking, “What would I do if I did season five of my show?” And it has to be something completely different, because I do think that that’s an important part of the show—I do feel like you’ve got to shed skin every year to get stronger and better. So for me, I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to just keep doing the same show. And I think that organically the show, it all works because of the story that I’m telling about these people, particularly these five women. And even though there’s three girls, I look at everybody as being of a different generation. And so those are all pieces of it and how it shakes out. But for this season, it was kind of just this profound thing last year, when we had all that rain in Los Angeles—I was convinced that I did it with my brain, so I wanted to make it a part of my show. I became a rainmaker in my show and in my life.

AVC: You mentioned the three different generations within just this family, which speaks to how your show is redefining the coming-of-age story or coming-of-age comedy. We tend to look at those narratives as just coming into adolescence, but Better Things shows Sam dealing with middle age and beyond. It’s never saccharine or even sad. Is that at all in the back of your mind as you start writing?

PA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, you’re telling me that I’m delivering what I wanted to, because it is. That could be the log line for my show, that it’s a coming-of-age story because everybody is coming into all these different phases and ages of their lives. We shine a light on the kids as much as we shine a light on the grandmother and on our protagonist. And it’s endlessly fascinating for me because of how different I have felt about all the ages I’ve been in my life. I’m watching my own daughters be in the world and go through different things, and they’re so beyond what I ever was. But it’s really an unbelievable experience. I play a mother of three daughters on my show; in real life, I’m a mother of three girls. So I’ve had to learn to adapt and change all the time.

Then I think about what my life was like when I was a teenager, then at 20, 30, and 40, and then turning 50—there used to be so much shame and stigma around getting older for a woman. It really fucked me up when I turned 30 for some reason. I was terrified of it. 40 was pretty intense too, but I really liked it. I liked being in my forties. It felt like I got in kind of a rhythm in my life that I could handle, but I was turning those ages at a time where, as an actor you would be shamed. It’d be curtains for you once you turned 30, 35, 40. Forget it. And now I think that whole thing has just been blown wide open.

AVC: Last season, you had Sam questioning her relevance, but also questioning the fact that she was asking herself that question and what that says about the culture around her. This season, she even says, “Welcome to my mid-life crisis.” How much of that are we going to see in season four? 

PA: Well, she gets an El Camino [Laughs.], so I think quite a bit of things happen in that direction. But it’s just the stuff of life and it’s about the integration of everything in your life. That’s what I like. I like co-mingling kids with grownups and old people and us doing stuff together. My daughters and I are closer now, I think, than we ever were, and I feel like I’m a better mom now in some ways. Your kids, when they’re little, they have to abide by you and listen to you or else they’ll die because they won’t be able to eat or have shelter and they’re dumb. But then when they get older, the most incredible thing is when they choose to be with you. It’s a very satisfying feeling. That’s what I want for my life. I want to be around my family as much as possible.

AVC: We also see that in how you turn the kitchen into this focal point for not just the show, but for the family. Sam spends so much time in there, with and without her girls and her mom Phil. Those are real meals that you’re preparing, right?

PA: Oh yeah. I have a food stylist on the show and I give her all of the ingredients. So what happens is we do the scene and then when we’re done shooting the scene, we shoot every step of me cooking the meal. It’s just a little bonus, fun thing.

AVC: Are you directing every episode again this season?

PA: Yes.

AVC: I always feel like I’m seeing places in your show that I don’t see in other productions that are set in Los Angeles. Do you seek out those unfamiliar parts, or is the city less of a character than that? 

PA: For me, this city is completely a character. Last season, we shot at a place that is very meaningful to me, the Apple Pan, and we shot a rather important scene there. We’ve shot at the Iliad, we’ve shot at Tacos Mexico, we’ve shot on the boardwalk in Venice. These are all places that resonate with me and are very meaningful to me. A lot downtown, tons in the Valley. I do want people to look at Los Angeles the way I experience Los Angeles, which is not fancy lunches in Beverly Hills—although I’ve had one or two of those in my life, I’m not going to lie. But I like showing us going to places; we’ve got a scene in a Persian restaurant this year, and this is the way my family and I live. I like it when people go out of their comfort zones and you can go and experience and you see the cultural diversity of Los Angeles in terms of art and food. It’s the greatest way to live in this city.

AVC: Last season, you began to address the “change in life”—we saw Sam dealing with hot flashes and bloating and other effects of peri-menopause. That storyline continues this season, but this is still one of only a few shows, and you’re one of only a few creators, writers, actors, whatever the label, who really wants to explore what life is like in menopause. Was there anything that you thought might be too much to address in the fourth season, or did you just go out there with no barriers in mind? 

PA: One of the things that I’ve learned is that if I hold back at all, then I’m not going to get to any kind of a good place. So I don’t want to repeat myself, but I do want to maybe do deeper dives in some areas of that because it’s ever-changing for me—ha, ha, pun intended. So, I just like it and when I go to doctor’s appointments—the dentist or the gyno—now or do the things that are like the indignities, if you look at it in a funny way and you can just relax in your life. That’s the way I live my life, is the way I’m telling stories in my show.

AVC: Another question you’ve raised is the difference between what you want for your kids and what you want from them. You’re looking after them when they’re little, but as they get older, there needs to be a little bit of give and take. For Sam, what is it that she wants most for her three daughters? What is it that she still needs from them?

PA: You’ll see at the end of one episode, Sam’s like a baby when it comes to her girls. She wants everything from them, you know? That’s the side of parenting that you don’t really see, is that we’re just like, “Love me. Don’t go away. Don’t you want to hang out with me?” It’s just this incredible love affair and wanting to be around each other so much. So yeah, what she wants from her kids is have them around but without bothering her.

AVC: You said you don’t like to repeat yourself, but some things just kind of find a way back into your life. Is there some secondary or tertiary storyline from a previous season that Sam will still find herself dealing with this season?

PA: There is, though I’m not sure how soon we touch on it this season. One of the themes that I put on the board was that divorce is contagious. I just thought it would be fun to explore that even though last season Judy Reyes’ character was like, “He’s my husband. If you don’t like it, you can get the fuck out.” But then I thought, “Oh, this would be interesting if it’s happening all around.” So we do pick that up. And then we have this thing with Greg Cromer [who plays Jeff], the great, the genius. His character is making amends after last season–it was a very small little beat, but in the episode with Sharon Stone, Diedrich [Bader] says to her, “Can I get you a drink?” And she says, “Anything non-alcoholic.” And I just thought, “Oh that’s interesting. Maybe we should go down this road that Jeff stays sober and he stays with this woman.” So there are a couple of different things. You’ll see more toward the end of this season that the menopause thing comes up.

I guess the biggest thing to return to for me, is that I really did not like when people called my show a feminist show at the beginning. But I can’t deny the fact that I’m a woman and that there are these things that are happening to me that are just about being a woman. So what I’m doing now is just illustrating that in my newsie kind of way.

AVC: It does feel like the groundwork has been laid for a big change for Phil [Celia Imrie]. You’ve always balanced the comedy and humor so well, but that is just something that’s potentially so devastating, not just for Sam, but also for her kids. And she obviously wants to protect them from that.

PA: Right. Well, it’s just the way we all kind of live our lives—we put off the inevitable and we end up having to go through our parents’ basements when they’re both dead or when the last family member has finally died. And it would be nice if we were able to explore our parents and really just live the life that we have left with them while they’re here. That’s kind of the way I’m living my life with my mom. There’s nothing you can do. I can’t stick her in a home in case she falls and breaks her hip. You know what I mean? And they’re as strong as they say they are. So you see the scary thing happened with Phil and then she’s like, “Well, I don’t even know why I have to wear this thing.” And you’re like, “Oh my God. That’s just the way life is.” It’s the hardest thing in the world for people of my generation to think about.