Watching the FX dramedy “Better Things” can feel like the televised equivalent of chicken soup. Co-creator and star Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical tale of raising three daughters as a working actor is a cozy mishmash of familiar emotions, conversations and stories. Thursday’s Season 4 premiere, written and directed by Adlon, even opens amid a Southern California downpour.
Although “Better Things” can make the most intransigent adults rethink their teenage arguments with their parents, much of the show’s affability comes from what isn’t said. And many of these resonant scenes feature Adlon’s on-screen alter ego, Sam Fox, in the kitchen — the “CSI”-grade camera angles of her dicing up dinner to the “Jeopardy!” theme last season, or cooking up a hearty welcome-home breakfast of beans, sausage and Marmite toast to the tune of Possessed by Paul James’ “Soy Muriendo” in this season’s premiere.
Tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Hot red peppers
One block cream cheese
One container sour cream
One can anchovies (drained)
Mix all of that together in a blender until smooth
Top with caviar
Pro tip: Go easy on the sour cream, it could get too watery
Food on “Better Things” means something. It’s the extra helpings of buttery risotto that Sam makes for a dinner party in case more people pop by — and there are always people popping by — and the chili that Sam loads into a thermos in an attempt to reconnect with her middle child (Hannah Alligood), who has shunned her for reasons of which she’s unsure. (The chili episode, which aired last season, caused such a visceral reaction with fans that FX turned it into a marketing campaign and gave out Adlon’s actual recipe as part of the show’s For Your Consideration event last year).
As a working parent myself, these scenes represent reassurance: In the era of Instagrammable school lunches and the absurdity of achieving “work-life balance,” Sam’s unfussy meals are the antithesis of perfection. She can’t be there all the time, but she can do this thing for her kids. There’s even a vodka bottle squarely planted on the table in one upcoming episode.
These episodes fill me with my own hunger. One, for inclusion, and to be told I’m not messing up this parenting thing. And two, for the real Adlon to cook for me.
So I asked her. And she said yes. And then she welcomed me into her Spanish-style house with such familiarity and warmth that it was as if she really were a trusted confidant to whom I regularly go for advice on child-rearing.
To clarify, Adlon doesn’t want to suggest that her show is promoting a “right” kind of parent.
“I don’t want to sound like a [jerk],” she says in her trademark rusty deadpan, although she uses a seven-letter synonym for “jerk.” She’s aware that time, life and finances can keep people from doing what she does on the show (if they even want to at all). And she doesn’t want to come across as the kind of smug, unaware person who says things like — affecting a stereotypical “Valley Girl” inflection — “I just want to show people how easy it is.”
But, she admits, “I have this opportunity and, so, if you can make it accessible for people, you know?”
She does this on- and off-screen. Adlon abhors the whole rotisserie chickens sold in grocery stores and has to stop herself from giving cooking lessons to the strangers she sees plucking oily boxes from under the heat lamps.
Still, she’s gathered some of her “Better Things” crew on set to give them quick instructions on how to roast a chicken in the past, and she’s making it for me today. The recipe could not be more stress-free or simple: Dust skin-on chicken thighs with paprika, pepper — she prefers McCormick or, as she calls it “black dust in a can” — and salt, saving a pinch of the latter to superstitiously toss over your shoulder. Cook at 450 degrees for one hour.
“When I’m writing the show, like, I’ll stop writing and I’ll go home by 4, because I want to cook,” Adlon says, adding that “there was a point where I was cooking almost every night.” That has lessened since two of her three daughters, actresses Gideon Adlon and Odessa A’zion, have moved out, leaving teenager Valentine “Rocky” Adlon home alone with Mom. (A’zion, who was visiting the day of the interview, recently sent a distressed text for her mom’s acorn squash recipe. She didn’t get back in time and daughter had to figure it out on her own.)
As someone with “a lot of anxiety,” Adlon says cooking “is the one thing that makes me feel calm.”
While those afternoon food preps sound like a chance to de-stress, today’s is an inspiration in entertaining multi-tasking. Adlon, her hair down, glasses on and dressed in an oversized blue T-shirt, dashes in and out of her cupboard for ingredients while ensuring we all have water, that her dogs, Daisy and Pru, aren’t underfoot, and exalting in the joys of the voice-to-text dictation feature on her smartphone as she checks in with work.
Classics like Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” play overhead as sunlight streams onto a kitchen island decorated with stone mortars overflowing with garlic and onions. By the sink, a black-and-white photo of Adlon and her daughters sits near a patron saint candle of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a cookbook from the West Village restaurant Jack’s Wife Freda.
Adlon also appears to take an actual interest in the lives of her visitors. Do I have kids? What does my husband do? Do we cook at home? Have I seen the cookbook for the restaurant Night + Market? Because it “gives [her] a big boner.”
It’s infectious. An Adlon endorsement doesn’t just make me take notice, it makes me want to incorporate it into my life. Farm Boy grocer in Sherman Oaks “is like [her] favorite store of all time” and now I want to partake of its “cauldron of miso soup.” Edelweiss Chocolates in Beverly Hills, which sourced the chocolate bunnies for an Easter-themed episode of “Better Things” last season, is Adlon’s “favorite place on planet Earth” — partly because “they have like, their original machines that they mix that chocolate with from like the 1800s” and “the conveyor belt like the ‘[I Love] Lucy’ conveyor belt.” I wonder how I have lived this long without visiting this oasis.
Just like the fictional Fox home on “Better Things,” Adlon’s walls are a showcase for her extensive art collection. She will tell you the back story on these pieces, which often includes her personal relationship with the artist. The recipe for a runny, shallot-heavy white dip that she dresses with caviar and serves as an appetizer while the chicken cooks comes from Chelsea Gibson, an artist who lives in upstate New York and who made a piece that hangs in Adlon’s office (Gibson, naturally, is friends with potter Elizabeth Nields, some of whose work Adlon also owns).
On the show, Sam has a rapport with everyone as if they have all been friends for years: mechanics, a gardener, a plumber, other parents at school. Part of this season’s third episode involves a visit to a nail salon where actress Elyse Dinh’s character, Debra, has a similar back story as an immigrant and refugee to one of Adlon’s friends.
“I have friends like everybody has friends,” Adlon says nonchalantly. “I don’t really pursue my friendships the way I used to, but I hope that they’re all there.”
And, as is the case in her series, Adlon’s real home has also served as a crash pad for her children’s friends and other young people. Even though her kids are now older, she says she still “could come home and people are doing karaoke … this morning, there were three people here besides me.”
Being a mother figure also means being the responsible adult. Adlon strives to have a safe set on “Better Things,” but one of ways the show works is because of the characters’ intimacy. This season’s fourth episode includes such an intense fight between Adlon’s matriarch and her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), that it climaxes with the two repeatedly calling each other a four-letter word. It’s also done while Madison is partially in her underwear. Another scene is set in a locker room with women wrapped in towels. Out of precaution, she brought in an intimacy coordinator for the gym scene.
“Any time I can get an intimacy coordinator, I do,” she says. “Even though I’m the mama [and] I take care of everybody, I’m not going to [mess] around with that at all.” (Asked about the decision not to use an intimacy coordinator for the fight scene with Madison, Adlon said that one was not brought in because scenes in which she and the cast members who play her daughters are depicted in their underwear together have been part of the series from the outset.)
And what do these relationships, especially the blurred lines between fact and fiction, mean for Adlon’s relationship with her own children?
“Well, a lot of my friends want you to be their mom,” A’zion tells her mother, adding that this includes boyfriends and ex-boyfriends.
In hindsight, Adlon says, “I feel like I’m a better mom to my kids now that they’re older than, probably, when they were younger, because it’s so overwhelming.” She tells me that Celia Imrie, who plays her mother on “Better Things,” questioned her own parenting choices with her now-grown son after watching a scene in the third-season premiere in which an exhausted Sam still finds time to help Alligood’s Frankie with a reading assignment.
Eventually, the chicken finishes cooking. It’s browned and delicious and everyone snaps photos of their piece with their phones. I attempted to replicate it for my family a few nights later. It didn’t look nearly the same, but my 5-year-old ate it. And I felt relieved.