Pamela Adlon on the secret to "Better Things": "Don't write with gender in mind"

The creator and star of "Better Things" appeared on "Salon Talks" to talk Hollywood, motherhood, and the C-word

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 6, 2020 7:00PM (EST)

Better Things (Suzanne Tenner/FX)
Better Things (Suzanne Tenner/FX)

Sam Fox is a veteran actor and single mother of three daughters. Pamela Adlon is veteran actor and single mother of three daughters. But though the woman who co-created, directs, produces, writes for, and stars in "Better Things" draws heavily on her real life in her acclaimed FX series, Adlon is not Sam. For one thing, she's now become one of the most successful multi-hyphenates working in television today, and she's using that position to shape the entertainment industry in a way that Sam would no doubt dream of working in.

The new season of the series just started up again, and the reviews are glowing as usual. New York Magazine's Vulture just called the first few episodes "stone-cold classics," and IndieWire called it "an experience unlike anything else on television." Adlon recently joined us in our studio for "Salon Talks," and the Peabody- and Emmy-winning star talked about the C-word, "Succession," and why all moms are single moms.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Pamela Adlon here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This new season, there is a phrase that gets used at least twice: "Every mom is a single mom. Boom, let's get into it.

Married or not, single or not, it's facts. It hit me when I'd been a single mom for a really long time, and I look at my other friends who are married, in relationships – it really is the case. Even if they have their husbands are present, they're doing all of the duties. Who fills out the papers? Who goes to the school? Who goes to soccer? All that kind of thing.

Another thing that happens this season is the C-word. There is a scene this season where the nuclear option is deployed. This word, do we take ownership of it? Do we not use it ever? Where did this come from for you?

I think it's probably the worst word that you could call a woman. You have a mother saying it to her daughter, and then the daughter lobs it right back. They go back and forth, and you see all the levels. It's like they reached this ridge and they keep going up and keep going up. At the end, there's diffusion and they can see each other. It's not saying that you can say anything you want to somebody who's very close to you, because you should always be careful what you say. But knowing that you can go there and then you can come back together.

The value of saying everything out loud sometimes, you can't put a price tag on that. You see my character get very emotional. She shaking, she's so angry and her daughter's being such a C-word. I'm going to invoke the C-word amendment. I think if people see it and if they don't care for Max, they think that she's been a brat for the last three seasons, everybody's going to be able to cheer Sam taking back. But it's actually a beautiful exchange. They just get all of this reactivity out of their bodies. Then at the end they come together, and it's one of my favorite things that we've shot.

It's really about what can come out of conflict in a way that avoiding conflict doesn't, that sense of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance. Maybe sometimes you have to drop a C-word to get there.

You do. And it's the comfort of knowing that that person isn't going to go away forever. You fight, get it out of your system. It's going to be okay. Then they throw down their arms and they put their arms around each other. I love it.

This is a show that goes to those kinds of dark places in parenting. Someone said that this is a show that really understands that the vast majority of what you do as a parent is not coming from a place of love. You always say that your primary objective is to remember this show is a comedy. How do you keep that comedy in some of the darkest places of the most central relationships in our lives?

Because it really is all funny. Because you sit there and you're like, "Oh, this is a kid, this not going to affect me." Then when you look at your relationship with your children, you have never probably gotten more angry or more hurt by any human being in the world than your kids. They really have ultimately all the power. The expression, "You're only as happy as your unhappiest child," that's the truest thing in the world. I have three and I'm looking at all three and if one of them's off, something's going on. If they're sad or anything, that's what's affecting me. You just want them all to be healthy and okay and happy.

And it's 24/7.

All the time. And when they get older, it's not like it's over.

I remember somebody once saying that if your kid says they hate you when they're little, you're supposed to pat yourself on the back, don't take it personally. The cool part about being with my girls now that they're older is that they're choosing to be with me and they're choosing to be with each other. But that time growing up when the three of them were stacked together and somebody would say to me, "Have a great weekend Pam"? It's a three-day weekend and I would be like, it's a death sentence. It'd be Friday night, the first one would spike a fever, the second one, then I would start to get hot. That's what weekends were like. Weekends were work. So hard.

You have said that this show is in many ways your version of therapy. You draw a lot from your personal life in this. I'm curious how that process is for you, where you look at something in your life and say, "This resonates with me, it must be something. It will resonate with people when they watch this show."

That was my wall that I hit when I pitched the show. I was thinking, this is funny to me. This is weird to me. What if I wanted to say something like this? I shouldn't be in this show, nobody's going to want to see me in the show. I wasn't invested in myself or what I had to say. Now I'm in Season 4 and I think I know what works. I sit there and I go, well, I love this. I'll see a crazy little thing on the street, I'll put it in as a detail. It's just little observational details that work within the world of the show. At first I didn't know if anything that I was thinking or was going to say was going to resonate. But it does in this world of this show.

That's what great art does, and this really is great art, Pamela. It has specificity and universality at the same time. That's so clearly what is driving every story that you have on this show.

It's massively important for me that it is an inclusive world. It's not just for single moms. It's not about Hollywood. It's not about three girls. It's not about this English lady. They are everybody, and then the other characters who inhabit the world and the friends. I feel I just am representing a bigger picture, we're all part of the same chain.

Let's talk about how that happens, because you have a writer's room. You have two men and two women in it, and you have a show that is very female-driven in so many ways. It's very clear that it was important to you that you have male voices in the room and male perspectives. How did that come about?

I have always very much myself identified in a more masculine way, my whole life. When the show first started, I was like, please don't call it a feminist show. When I talk to my writers in my room I'll say, "Don't write with a gender in your mind." I want to know the story, where before, sometimes I'll say to Ira [Parker], one of the writers, "What are you doing? This is so skewed male. You've got to pull it back. You got to write more of a female brain." I like everything to be non-binary in my stories and what we're doing. When we're telling these stories, I don't want it to be binary. That's the thing about the writing.

Because the idea of feminism was never to crowd anybody out. It's about having a good place for everyone.

That is exactly right. That being said, there are some very specific to women stories that are happening in the world of the show. Even I have to step back and look at that and say, "Oh, this is a very real thing." The bonding that women have with each other, and how important it is for women to raise each other up and be there for each other.

You've talked about the taboo of being single in our culture. Now that you've been doing this for a couple of years, what the response is when viewers approach you about what they're seeing, potentially a depiction of a life that they've never seen before. What does that feel like?

The responses are unbelievable. I had somebody say to me the other day, "I think you're making this show just for me." It's very personal, and people are taking it personally. They feel seen, like their story is being told, whether they're in a relationship or single or anything like that. I think that's cool.

It's also about power and who gets it and who gets to use it. It explores that through the lens of an actor's experience. We sometimes think that there's only one way that power gets abused. You are showing all of the little indignities and exploitations, and what it's like to not be the star and the unglamorous aspects of that. Originally you thought maybe this character wouldn't be an actor.

I just thought I should veer away from my life. I was looking at shows and that aspect was in it. I thought, I should not have the job that I have. My dad always said, write what you know. If I was trying to go too far away, it wouldn't have worked. I took the bones of my life and then I was able to take off from there.

Now you're a person who has power. Who is in the spotlight. Who is the star.

I abuse everybody. I'm like, finally.

Just throwing staplers at interns.

What I'm able to do now is build a world on my set where people feel cared for and listened to and we're not overtaxing, in terms of the crew. I adore my crew. I couldn't do my show without my crew and my staff and my actors and my network. I'm not doing it all by myself. What I am able to do that starts with me, is making sure that the whole environment is everybody's taken care of. I like to feed my crew four times a day. I don't like to work past a 12 hour day. I want to go home. I know they want to go home, and I want everybody to feel a sense of ownership with the show. And feel excited about what they're doing and not get burnt out.

Last season I said, I'm not going to do the show if I don't have a female key grip. That was massively important to me, and I had an amazing female key grip last year. Then she couldn't come back, so I had another one this year. All it takes is a little bit of thought to pioneer a new direction. And that's what we're doing.

I know you have not a whole lot of free time, but we are living in this platinum era of television. There is an abundance of riches out there. When you have 10 minutes or 15 . . .


Totally loved it. Loved it so much. Those crazy racks and that theme song, that music. Oh, I love it.

"Better Things" airs new episodes Thursday on FX and then on Fridays on Hulu.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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