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Pamela Adlon overwhelmed by Emmy recognition, excited to apply singular vision to 'Better Things' Season 2

Pamela Adlon can’t fully process what’s happening.

The second season of her semi-autobiographical FX comedy, “Better Things,” premieres Thursday — its own nerve-inducing situation. Then there’s Sunday’s Primetime Emmy Awards, where she’s nominated for actress in a comedy series.

“I can’t even,” she says during a recent sit-down in Beverly Hills when she’s reminded. “How did I get here? I’ve been working my whole life as an actor. I never thought I’d get to this place.”

“Better Things,” which Adlon, 51, co-created with her longtime collaborator Louis C.K., features Adlon as Sam Fox, a working actor and single mother of three daughters. The first season earned acclaim for its refreshing and hilariously honest depiction of someone trying to figure out how to navigate the pothole-filled roads of parenthood and work and a personal life.

Adlon produces stars, co-writes and, this season, directs every episode.

We spoke with the New York native about her approach to Season 2, her own growing pains as a parent and the reason for all those toilet shots.


Heading into Season 2, what did you know for sure you wanted to explore?

I started thinking about everything last October. All these inspirations just started happening, and I talked to Louie about it. There’s a lot of changes happening with her kids and who they are as a family. We’ll see more of Sam’s mom. And we go deeper with characters you maybe wouldn’t have expected. Then there’s Sam’s love life that we wanted to hit a bit harder and make it all as complicated as it really is.

What opportunities did that present, given that Sam is someone who is used to being on her own?

She's used to being in control of her time and her feelings, because things with her kids and her mother are so out of control all the time. It's like also does she have enough space to [date] with somebody brand new … Then at the end of the day, feeling like she [screwed] it all up, and she doesn't deserve it. That's sad.

Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in a scene from the Season 2 premiere of "Better Things."
Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox in a scene from the Season 2 premiere of "Better Things." (Beth Dubber /FX )

In terms of the kids, what was the objective this season? We left off with one of Sam’s daughters, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), questioning her gender identity.

It was just so fun to be able to go deeper and then to not tie things up neatly about Frankie. She's so young. You know what I mean? She’s the way I was ... Look at all the TV shows I did in the ’80s. Every single part, I was a boy, or playing a boy, or a girl who wanted to be a boy. One of my daughters ... she was, like, a boy for four straight years. Everybody is very like, "You have to get a sponsor; it's going to be this way." No, it's not. We don’t know. And that’s OK.

With all the girls, it’s just so amazing to see how they’ve grown and how much range they show. Their performances are just incredible.

What is it like for Sam to reach this stage where her kids are seeking more independence — and where she’s trying to figure out who she is outside of them?

When your kids stop being your excuse, or your only focus and you have to start living for yourself — I mean, it's the only reason I am where I am right now, is because my kids got a little bit older, and they got a foothold, and I had said no to so many things for so many years. And then I finally started really investing time into myself professionally; stuff that I had sacrificed for a long time. That's what I'm doing now, and that's why it's paying off in the way that it is. My daughters understand that. They know how hard I'm working.

What led you to directing every episode this season?

That was just something that Louie encouraged me to do. Halfway through the season last year, it was just plain that I should be doing it. It's a very handmade show, and it's just easier. It wasn't harder, strangely, because I knew what I wanted. I wanted to keep the performances small and real. I never wanted to waste a frame. I know what I like when I see it. And so I was able to artistically and creatively in every way get off by making this whole season.

What served as your inspiration? There are some moments where there’s no dialogue, or we just hear the music.

I wanted to have thoughtful moments and to be able to let them play out. You know how you spend a lot of time in your mind, kind of visualizing things and then rolling memories over and over in your head? That kind of thing. This season felt like there was a lot of momentum, and she was digging in with a lot of things, and then retreating from a lot of things.

I wanted to have thoughtful moments and to be able to let them play out.

— Pamela Adlon, "Better Things"

Did you learn anything about yourself as an actress from seeing yourself through the director’s perspective?

Yeah. It's funny, because I would have to separate myself, because I have to watch the thing as a whole. I would stop and say, "You’ve got to give me a minute." Everybody would be around me going, "We’ve got to get these shots." I would say, "Stop!" And I would look at the actors and say, "Did you get what you need?" My script supervisor would come over to me and say, "I need to speak to the actor, Pamela, now."

Finally, the toilet shots …

I just have a situation with toilets. I mean, I plunge my own personal toilet at least two to three times a week.

‘Better Things’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)

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