There isn’t a lot of plot, and the stakes aren’t usually dire, but don’t say Pamela Adlon’s hit show, “Better Things,” is about nothing. After being nominated for two Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, the FX series — now in its fifth and final season — is a winner of the Peabody Award, cited for its “at-times raw examination of the vicissitudes of working motherhood, crackling with feminist verve and energy.”
In “Better Things,” Adlon plays a version of herself, Sam Fox, a working L.A. actor and single mom raising three daughters — Max, Frankie and Duke — played by Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley and Olivia Edward, respectively. Her best frenemy is her widowed mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), who lives across the street. The final season includes Max’s secret abortion, Frankie playing beard to her gay friend and a trip to the U.K. for a glimpse at Phyllis’ past.
‘Bad for my life, good for my show,’ says the creator and star of ‘Better Things,’ which made women in their 40s and 50s visible in new ways.
“In this season, abortion, Ukraine, ‘don’t say gay,’ books in schools, all of those things have happened in the world,” Adlon says of the topicality of the final season. “We were shooting outside of the real Planned Parenthood on the day my friend from the ACLU called and said, ‘Can you get on an emergency Zoom about SB 8 in Texas?’ What the f— is happening!? And that’s why it’s so important that we put it in the show, showing Max is responsible, making this decision for herself, not frivolous.”
The show originated in 2016 at the height of the #MeToo movement and when women wearing pink hats were demonstrating everywhere against the policies of Donald Trump. At age 47, Adlon was a Hollywood veteran. She began acting in her teens and found a niche doing voice-over roles for animated shows like “Rugrats” and “King of the Hill,” for which she won an Emmy voicing the character of Bobby Hill.
Adlon is the daughter of a British mother and a Jewish father, a TV writer-producer. Raised in New York City and Los Angeles, she was a teen when cast in her first role, as Dolores Rebchuck in the 1982 sequel “Grease 2.” In recent years, she played David Duchovny’s fidelity-challenged friend Marcy Runkle on “Californication.”
After that, she became a regular on “Louie,” starring Louis C.K. She began writing on the show and the two soon began working together to develop “Better Things,” with C.K. writing and directing a number of episodes, until his career crashed and burned in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment by five women. After the first season, Adlon took over creative control and has piloted the show through five seasons of critical acclaim.
For a writer, eschewing the dramatic guardrails that plot and high stakes provide is a bit like a trapeze artist working without a net. “The evolution of the show has been such that in the early days, Louie and I would do it like puzzle pieces. And that was Season 1. And cut to Season 5, and it was very character-driven, dialogue-driven,” Adlon says of the writing process on a show that is very scripted despite appearing otherwise.
For both Pamela Adlon and the character she plays in ‘Better Things’ on FX, cooking and entertaining are vital. She invited us into her home to see why.
“There are conversations that happen with words or without words. I build the show from there. It comes from an idea, then you’re in the writers room, then it goes to draft and then you get the actors. So it really is about the collaboration.”
The first season of “Better Things” saw guest stars like Lenny Kravitz, Danny Trejo and Duchovny, while subsequent seasons have seen such guests as Molly Shannon, Mike Judge and Lena Waithe. “Sharon Stone is in Season 3, because she came up to me at the Golden Globes and grabbed me. I saw this beautiful giraffe-unicorn coming toward me and I’m like, ‘Holy s—,’” Adlon recalls. “She’s like, ‘I love you.’ It was a small part, not a dazzling part, and she came in and you forget she’s Sharon Stone.”
Celebs love it, audiences love it, even jurors at the Peabody Awards love it. Why, then, is it time for “Better Things” to end?
“It felt like a natural point,” Adlon said. “It was a mutual thing with me and the network. And now that I’m getting to the end, people are like why? It’s a really good place to put the show on pause. I like to, instead of just ending everything and resolving every cliffhanger, leave with some stuff that’s dangling because that’s the way life is. I wanted it to pay off in a way that people were like, ‘I want to know what’s going on with all of these people in that whole world after it’s over.”
With her production company, Slam Book Inc., staffed by women, Adlon’s developing numerous projects and will direct a feature based on a friend’s memoir later this year. But before she drops the curtain on “Better Things,” is she perhaps hungering for that Emmy win?
“This show is such a win for me,” she said. “To have gone through these seasons with any feeling of disappointment of not getting an award, I left that far behind. Everything we’ve gotten to create, it just feels like a massive win.”
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