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Don’t call Pamela Adlon’s new comedy ‘Better Things’ a ‘female “Louie” ’

A scene from an upcoming episode of “Better Things.”

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The scene was a familiar one: a mother schlepping the aisles of a department store — in this case, a Macy’s in Canoga Park — while her angst-ridden teenage daughter resentfully followed.

On the agenda for this particular visit was a search for a professional outfit to help the self-doubting, wayward high-schooler see her potential.

“When you look at this blouse, be disgusted with me. Say, ‘I don’t wear crap like that.’ Say it like you’re giving me a dig. Like I wear crap like that.”

This is what happens when Pamela Adlon is your mother. Or, rather, this is what happens when Pamela Adlon is playing your mother in a new, semi-autobiographical comedy she created for FX — and, as such, is giving instructions for the scene.

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It was a Friday morning in May, and the hum of the store, which remained open to the public during production, carried on around them. At one point, Adlon found herself offering her opinions to a female shopper searching for a dress to wear to her son’s wedding.

Pamela Adlon, right, looks at clothing as extras wait, reflected in the mirror at right, during a break in filming at Macy's for "Better Things" in Canoga Park on May 13, 2016.
Pamela Adlon, right, looks at clothing as extras wait, reflected in the mirror at right, during a break in filming at Macy’s for “Better Things” in Canoga Park on May 13, 2016.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )

While that unscripted encounter didn’t make the final cut, it’s the kind of slice-of-life feeling that Adlon’s show, “Better Things,” elicits.

The comedy, which premieres Thursday, features Adlon as Sam Fox, a single mother of three daughters who navigates the tightrope between family life and her work as an actor.

Some may know Adlon from her work on Showtime’s “Californication.” Others may recognize her husky voice from the animated series “King of the Hill,” for which she voiced the quirky Bobby Hill. But FX viewers know Adlon for her work on critical darling “Louie,” where she had a recurring role as Louis C.K.’s character’s love interest. (Adlon also wrote for the series.)

The 11-year friendship between Adlon and C.K., which dates back to HBO’s “Lucky Louie,” carries over to “Better Things.” The 10-episode series, along with the recent “Baskets,” is part of C.K.’s overall deal with FX. In addition to serving as co-creator, he also co-wrote multiple episodes and directed the pilot.

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I like to keep it simple. It’s all about just letting it all … lay there like a fart. Just sit in it and smell.

— Pamela Adlon

But don’t call “Better Things” a “female ‘Louie.’”

“Of course there’s going to be a comparison because he’s my creative partner on this show and professionally,” Adlon said in an interview more recently, inside her temporary office in Sherman Oaks. “I know everyone is saying it because it’s easy, but I don’t consider it the ‘female Louie,’ except for the fact that in my show people talk the way Louie and I talk. My show feels very documentary-like or like an independent film. I like to keep it simple. It’s all about just letting it all … lay there like a fart. Just sit in it and smell.”

Inside her office, where cans of La Croix sit against a wall tacked with index cards, the New York native can’t stay on one thought too long — mostly because she wants to make sure she’s not leaving anything out. That can sometimes yield colorful language that’s unsuitable for print -- though you can probably fill in the gaps above and below -- or times when she lunges off the couch to point things out. In one instance, she walked to the chair and ottoman that sit near her desk to explain they belonged to her father, then motioned to a photo of him in a pine green sweater, which she says she wore in the show’s pilot.

“That’s such a crazy thing,” Adlon said, stopping herself, still incredulous at the thought: “Like, I have a pilot. I have a show.”

It gets Adlon thinking about her time on ABC’s “Boston Legal” in the mid-’00s and a promise she made to herself back then while rummaging the craft service table.

“I remember we had the most beautiful craft service table on that set,” Adlon said. “There was, like, no less than three hot pots going at a time. I mean, it was a … David E. Kelley show, for crying out loud. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to … have that when I have a show one day.’ And I did.”

But it didn’t come without some convincing on her end. When C.K. told Adlon that he put her name in the running when John Landgraf, the chief of FX Networks, said he wanted to develop a show with a woman at the helm, Adlon had a four-word response that included the F-bomb somewhere in the middle: ‘Are you … crazy?”

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C.K. had a different perspective.

“Pamela has a rare talent for expressing the misery of her life in the most hilarious way,” he said by email. “She is a great storyteller, and her instincts for how to create television, her timing, her eye — I’ve observed these talents all the years I’ve worked with her, and I believed she could put them together to make a great show.”

After several conversations, Adlon warmed to the idea.

“I mean, I was doing ‘Louie’ and ‘Californication,’ [animated voice-over work] and raising three girls — having my own show seemed ridiculously impossible,” Adlon said. “But I knew there are windows of opportunity in life. If you don’t say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to certain things in your life at a certain point, you’ll never get to the next level. You have to be your own pioneer for your future, especially as a woman.

“I could be on someone else’s show right now,” she added. “But I’m on mine. And that’s … amazing. I feel like even if it goes nowhere, I won. I can already hear Louie nagging me about that. He always says to me, ‘Don’t do that! Don’t say that “even if it doesn’t last” crap.’ But I can’t help it. If you don’t live your life with your feet in some kind of reality, you’re going to … die all the time.”

She is blunt and honest and not a honey sweet measured mom. She’s a mess. And millions of women and parents and people live like her.

— Louis C.K.

If Adlon sounds like she’s familiar with the travails of Hollywood, it’s because it’s in her blood. Her father, Don Segall, was a morning TV producer and comedy writer (“Diff’rent Strokes,” “Who’s the Boss?”). And she honed her acting chops at an early age, appearing in such sitcoms as “Night Court” and “The Facts of Life.”

“I have been fired so many … times,” Adlon, 50, said. “So has my father. My family struggled. I struggled. I had to sell my record collection to pay my rent after I was on the … ‘Facts of Life’ when I was a teenager! It just all goes in these waves. Right now, I’m plastered on every … bus with ads for this show, but in two years, I’m probably going to be hitting my friends up who I put in my show, saying, ‘Guess what, I need some help.’”

It’s that sort of messy and ungainly reality that would ultimately set the tone for her show. Adlon wasn’t interested in creating an entirely fictitious world. Instead, she wanted to mine her life as the primary parent of three teenage children. (Adlon got divorced in 2010.)

“Pamela is playing a middle-class working actor who is not famous but works all the time doing voice-over work, bit parts, anything that comes,” C.K said. “Also she is not a typical TV lead actor. She is blunt and honest and not a honey sweet measured mom. She’s a mess. And millions of women and parents and people live like her.”

For the traditionally male-skewing FX, it signals a shift to broaden its base.

“We’ve had great female characters on our shows before,” said Eric Schrier, president of original programming at FX Networks. “But we never had a sole female-driven show that was written by a woman. We’ve been looking to vary the points of view on the network for a while.”

The pressure to meet all the praise and expectations, at times, seemed an impossible task. Adlon talks of setbacks (for example, when the actor playing her middle daughter in the pilot had to leave the show for personal reasons) or of pushing for what she wanted (e.g., her persistence in setting the opening credits to John Lennon’s “Mother”). Adlon also became a first-time director on the series with some pushing from C.K.

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“I never thought I would quit,” Adlon said. “But I did think I would die. And as … corny as it sounds, giving up wasn’t an option. But there was a point where I was, like, ‘Do I have to be in it anymore?’”

More seriously, though, Adlon pauses when she thinks about what it means for her daughters to know that there is a show out there that is hers.

“I showed a bunch of their friends an episode a couple of weeks ago,” Adlon said. “My kids everyday are realizing what I’ve done. I hope they’re proud. My message to them always is: Make your own money, support yourself, and do what makes you happy. Hopefully, I’m setting that example.”

‘Better Things’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

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