Pamela Adlon takes the plunge: Discovering even "Better Things" ahead

On a set visit to "Better Things," Salon talks to Pamela Adlon and her co-stars about the creator owning her vision

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 24, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox on "Better Things" (Pamela Littky/FX)
Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox on "Better Things" (Pamela Littky/FX)

On a clear and decadently warm September day, “Better Things” celebrated Easter. It was a family affair directed by the show’s creator Pamela Adlon, held in a backyard of a home in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, complete with pastel eggs hidden in the greenery surrounding a pool.

Girls milled around in their springtime dresses, and young men circulated in neat, light-colored suits. As is the case with every part of “Better Things,” which kicks off Thursday at 10 p.m. on FX, this excerpt of April in September reflects a life in transition.

Today Phil,  mother to Adlon’s Sam and played by Celia Imrie, behaves outrageously and without a lick of apology, inviting side-eye from other guests. Imrie’s personality is very different from Phil’s; she's soft spoken and welcoming. “I would do absolutely anything Pamela tells me to do,” she says, laughter playing around the corners of her smile. In these new episodes, Adlon asks a great deal of her.

“This season for me is about change, which every season is about, but also it's about getting older,” Adlon told me later, when she had a time to sit down for a conversation. “So, you're talking about three generations, and it's very interesting to me to see that. You struggle because everybody has this scary conversation that they have to have, and that they don't want to have.”

Constant change has always been the lifeblood of “Better Things,” with Sam alternately persevering through the challenges life visits upon her, and clinging to each precious moment she has with her daughters Duke (Olivia Edward), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Max (Mikey Madison).

Separately each family member receives a fair examination through Sam’s gaze. Sewn together, their connected stories create a tapestry of moments that honor all the transformations women undergo at each stage of life. And within each episode, Adlon uncovers ways to weave the most mundane shreds of the Fox family’s life into an extraordinary vision.

As Adlon circulated through this workday dressed up as a garden party, she seamlessly leapt between the roles of director and mom. To her young extras she yells, “Run around with your friends like you were, before we ruined it!”  By “it,” she was referring to those slices of life that form the soul of “Better Things.” Creating them for the camera is a careful, hands-on process.

Then, mostly to entertain the adults in earshot, she jokingly added, “Remember how happy you were before we co-opted your childhood?”

Adlon has been in show business for a very long time, going back to 1982's "Grease 2" and the 1983-'84 season of "The Facts of Life." In "Better Things" people recognize her character Sam for all kinds of roles, and sometimes for her voice alone. Similarly, Adlon's filmography is varied and extensive, including prolific voice work (that's her raspy tone giving life to Bobby on "King of the Hill") and onscreen roles in shows such as "Californication."

She's been on a lot of sets during her career, and knows what separates the good from the bad. In her capacity as a director, she says the secret is simple: keep everyone well-fed and feeling respected. "A well-fed crew is a happy crew!" she declared. Later Adlon stopped to talk to her tiniest extra about her very first acting job, making sure she took the Easter treats she wanted as souvenirs.

When she reviewed a take she loved, she shared her approval like this: "Oh my GOD! It's so good! I mean . . . what else could I want?"

With that, they moved on to the next shot.

“Better Things” co-star Diedrich Bader, who plays Sam’s best friend Rich, wasn’t on set that day. But in a subsequent interview, he confirmed that days like this one are typical. “She is so cool and laid back and fun and wants every day to get the job done,” he said. “But she also wants to have a good time. And there's this sort of alchemy that happens on her set that I haven't experienced on any other set. As you know, I've been on a ton of sets. [“Better Things”] is entirely unique. Something really interesting and sometimes incredibly profound happens within the storytelling of every day.”

It bears pointing out, by the way, that aside from Imrie and Edward, all of the on-camera talent for this shoot is African American. Adlon explained that when she thinks about the majority of holiday films and specials, it’s always white families and traditions featured in front of the camera. “For my show I wanted —” she stretches her arms wide, as if inviting the entire portrait before her into her heart “— black Easter.”

If this weren’t Adlon, and “Better Things,” that observation might strike a person as . . . off. But it comes from a real, soul-deep place within the star and creator. Inside that moment the "Better Things" version of the holiday feels true. The prop wranglers and costume designers did their homework and, to be honest, to me it felt like a childhood memory come to life.

In the final version of the episode, which airs April 18, Phil and Duke are visiting this party. So much about Sam Fox’s life and mothering style is not traditional, hence having Duke and Phil take part in an Easter celebration that's part of another family’s fabric and legacy invites them, and the viewer, to enjoy a different kind of intimacy.

“I want to put this the right way,” Adlon said during our conversation. “The best thing that I can do with my show is to show the world, and it's not about being a show about diversity. It's including everything. It's all inclusive. It's just, ‘Look at the world. Look at the quilt of the show.’”

“The other thing is about the writing,” she added. “Every thread that I pull kind of unravels. And you have to be careful, because it's all important. That's been the one biggest challenge about this season, because it is so linear, and it has never been this linear.”

Every half-hour of “Better Things” holds multiple adventures — structurally, in the sense that the viewer might not know how or if the central theme of one scene carries through to the next, and specifically, in the form of unexpected moments yielded by conversation or setting.

In season 3 “Better Things” welcomes a number of high-profile guest stars, including Matthew Broderick, Sharon Stone and Doug Jones. But Adlon also exercises her power as sole showrunner to bring on a number of talented people who haven’t been working regularly.

“My friend Cree Summer [from NBC’s “A Different World], she hadn't worked in 25 years on camera,” Adlon recalled. “Which is so crazy, because I literally pulled her out of mothballs. It was, like, an amazing f**king thing. Cree and Rachel True [of the film “The Craft”] were in the same scene and they were like, ‘Everybody has thought we are the same f**king person for years!’”

“So you put three brown girls together," she continued, "because Judy Reyes was in that scene —  and me.  And we all get to talk about where we are in our lives and our bodies. We're all women in our 50s now, and I'm telling you, it is profound what happened.

“We're talking about,  just off the page, about stuff like, 'What was your last day? When was the last time that you knew that men stopped looking at you? When did your clothes stop fitting you? When did you widen out?' All of these physical changes, and then these mental changes, and talking about getting hot, and all of the hot flashes, and everything, and the shyness,” she continued.

“By the end of that night . . .” Adlon became silent for a few breaths, then started to shake her head as emotion bubbled to the surface. “I'm just very touched because it was deep. It was deep.”

That memory overwhelms her, understand, not merely for what it evokes about a woman’s place in the world after 50, but what it signifies for her show.

Adlon shot another scene, Sam's version of a ladies' night out, at TOMGEORGE restaurant in  downtown L.A. on what turned out to be National Girlfriends Day. “And the weird thing is, that is first scene I ever wrote for my show, and I put it on ice,” she said. “The reason is I found, excuse me, the tone of my show in that scene. But I didn't want to put that scene in my first season, because I wanted to show the world of a mom, and of this character who doesn't get to go out.”

In this third season, both Sam and Adlon are coming out into the world as forces to be contended with. For Sam, this coalesces in a scene that was once in cold storage and is finally a reality, now that Adlon is stepping into the full breadth of her creative power.

Part of this story is (too) common knowledge: Between the second and third season of “Better Things” Adlon was confronted with a shock that forced her to realign a professional life that was, compared to most, quite stable. She fired her longtime manager, who remains an influential entity in the entertainment business.

She also cut ties with one of her closest friends, the person with whom she created “Better Things” and co-wrote most of the first two seasons.

But clearly “Better Things” belongs to Adlon alone; you can see this in the very first episode, one that she dedicates to her daughters. Very few plot details in the series are spun from air, giving every episode an honesty one can only glean from autobiographical experiences.

The Fox family’s unforgettable moments, odd habits and superstitions are, in many cases, Adlon’s own. All that life mining results in a cinematic experience heavily flavored with brash humor and tenderness, portraying life as warm-blooded treasure, a constant trial and in some cases, a beautifully familiar stanza.

Every moment witnessed on that September day on set had Adlon's fingerprints on it, although she’s quick to credit her production team for making dreams like Easter egg hunts during apple picking season not only look right, but feel right.

“People in this line of work, television show creators, the good ones mix a confidence with a vulnerability,” says Rebecca Metz, who plays Sam’s friend and manager Tressa. “The best work comes from that. You have to be confident, but if there isn't some fear in you that you're going to screw up, it doesn't make very exciting work. The thing that makes Pam great is that she's willing and able to push past her fear and trepidation and about doing whatever thing it is that she hasn't done before. She pushes past it and does the work anyway.”

What Adlon borrows is not done lightly. In Thursday’s premiere Sam reads to Frankie the opening words to Lorraine Hansberry’s opus “A Raisin in the Son,” daughter and mother passing the book back and forth.

“Act 1. The Younger living room would be a comfortable and well-ordered room if it were not for a number of indestructible contradictions to this state of being,” Sam reads. "Its furnishings are typical and undistinguished, and their primary feature now is that they have clearly had to accommodate the living of too many people for too many years — and they are tired.

In Hansberry’s work the passage is meant to describe a scene of strain and poverty, conveying a resilient dignity there, too. As Sam and Frankie read from the page, the camera quietly moves through the house embracing them, capturing the eclectic furniture, much of it also worn but aglow, instead, with abundance.

When the time came for “Better Things” go back into production for season 3, Adlon’s first time riding solo —creatively speaking — she wasn’t sure she could do it.

“For me, I've never been in a writers room, or have run a writers room before. I am the daughter of a writer who always wrote by himself until the end of his life,” she said, referring to her father, TV comedy writer Don Segall.  “I was always seeing my dad in his office, just lonely, writing by himself.

“So I had always written by myself, and documented everything by myself, and recorded everything by myself. Then, I only ever had one writing partner.”

Approaching season 3 without him, she said, “was a reanimation of myself. It's like I died in a way, and then I was reborn. And meeting people, getting to trust that we have to go to the next step. Knowing it's time to go to the next step.”

So she called her close friend, writer and producer Phil Rosenthal, who helped her put together a writers room. But Rosenthal did more than this. He affirmed Adlon's ability, reminding her that she’s been running the show the entire time.

“Sometimes it's obvious to everyone else but you. Right?” Rosenthal said in a recent phone interview. “It's kind of like the Excalibur story. You think that you’re good because you have the magical sword. And if you find out that the sword isn't there anymore or it's not magical, you think you’re dead. But then you realize, oh: you were the magic all along. That's Pam.”

He adds, “Pam, as a person, is a full-blown character. She's not very tall, but she's an absolute powerhouse. She's hysterically funny. She's incredibly dirty, and she's sweet as can be also. She’s shocking, and funny, and talks like a truck driver. I mean that not just of the content of what she says, but the way she says it. Her voice is hilarious, as we know from her voiceover work. She's everything. She's the full package in a compact size.”

Some version of that, I imagine, is what the creator of “Everybody Loves Raymond” conveyed to the creator of “Better Things”  at a time when she most needed to hear it.

Back to our September Easter: In a quiet side room, Edward completed schoolwork and waited to see if Duke was required to hunt for any more Easter candy that day. Although "Better Things" is her job, she thinks of Adlon and her co-stars as a second family. “When we first met, we just like bonded so fast,” Edward said.  “And we talk like a family would talk. We like to hang out a lot, on and off camera, on and off set.”

But she also values her part in a series she knows is unlike any other TV experience. ”The stories are super relatable, which means that it gives you that happy feeling inside that you're not the only one going through something,” she said. “Because you see them going through the same things. And it makes you feel normal. That's a great feeling to have.”

Recall, however, that there is a pool. And with a pool in play, inevitably someone must go in the water.

That falls to young Syre Collins, a small boy with a sweet smile wearing a light-colored suit, one of four or five changes of clothing. Adlon and the crew do many dry runs with Sy before shooting the real deal. “It’s going to feel weird,” Adlon warned him, “because it’s going to get in your shoes.”

And Sy, with each rehearsal take, looks less and less excited about being submerged in water while fully dressed head-to-toe in his Easter best. The sun is fading, for one thing. And more importantly there’s the matter of how he’s going in  — not with a controlled dive, but a slapstick spill.

Someone calls “action” and the kid goes in with a perfect splash. The man playing his father fishes him out, and he’s walked out of frame, a look of annoyance on his face. After “cut,” he breaks into a grin as everyone applauds.

“How was it?” Adlon asked him with a childlike excitement.

Syre replied, “Fun! I could do it over and over again, actually.”

Adlon deadpanned in response, “Well, you’re going to.  How are your shoes?”

“Weird,” Syre admitted.

Adlon nods, but like her young star, isn’t too worried about it.  She’s reached a point in her life where she knows that anxious anticipation tends to be worse than the reality of a tumble, that discomfort allows us to better appreciate joy. These new episodes of “Better Things” are the result of Adlon diving in to something unexpected with renewed confidence and sorting through the riches lurking underneath. Luckily for us she’s generous, and ready to share what she's discovered.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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