SALON TALKS

Pamela Adlon on ending "Better Things": "It hasn't been a piece of cake — but it's been a total joy"

On "Salon Talks" the star, writer and director discusses the legacy of her FX hit, which is now in its last season

By Melanie McFarland

Published March 7, 2022 6:00PM (EST)

Actress Pamela Adlon attends the 5th and final season celebration of FX's "Better Things" at Hollywood Forever on February 23, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (JC Olivera/Getty Images)
Actress Pamela Adlon attends the 5th and final season celebration of FX's "Better Things" at Hollywood Forever on February 23, 2022 in Hollywood, California. (JC Olivera/Getty Images)

Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, you can always turn to "Better Things." This remains true despite Pamela Adlon's reliable meal of goodness coming to a close after five seasons on FX. Adlon, who stars as Sam Fox and directs all ten episodes of this final season, designed her series to capture the feeling and rhythm of everyday life for women rather than follow concrete story arcs.

This ensures that long after the series creator and the ensemble cast Adlon thinks of as her second family have moved on in their lives and careers, Sam's loving and trying moments with her mother Phil (Celia Imrie) and daughters Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Riley) and Duke (Olivia Edward) will be there for future generations of mothers and daughters to look to for guidance, solace, companionship or a guide to letting old grievances go.

"It's really about what matters the most to you," Adlon says in our full "Salon Talks" interview, which you can watch here or by clicking on the video below.  "Everything changes, and we're all an organic mess. You have to be better. You have to be willing to take all of that stuff away and say, 'I love you. You asked me to hold this space for you.'"

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Adlon at the launch of every new season of "Better Things," which makes this episode a bit wistful. But it's also inspiring, given all of the positive messages Adlon wants to leave viewers with in these last visits to the Fox household, including the example of the show itself. 

RELATED: The "Better Things" final season reminds us of how incredible it is that we – and it – exist

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I've got to say, I'm very sad that this is the last season. Just to say "fifth and final season" to me is a little heartbreaking. This show is one of those reliable comforts that we've all become accustomed to. How is it for you to be entering to this time knowing, "This is it"? You've already filmed those last episodes.

Well, I love that you say that it's a comfort to people. That makes me feel like I've done my job, because I really wanted it to be that.... It was very hard, gratifying work to make a show and build a show that people will remember, that can resonate. I know that the crew feels that way about it, and the cast and all the new cast that we had come in, and the UK crew that we worked with. I mean, it hasn't been a piece of cake. But it's been a total joy.

Let's talk about that because there were production challenges this year. Part of it was filming Celia Imrie's part in England, which was interesting to see in that it looked seamless. If you hadn't told me that Phil was right next door like she's always been, I wouldn't have known it. How did you do that?

I could not picture it at all. I was like, how are we going to do this? The thing is that when we figured out that we were going to go to the UK, as opposed to like... I'm not going to do Celia on Zoom the whole season. We're not going to have "Virtual Phil."  We're going to address COVID within the stories of the show, but not in the show. We figured out that we were going to build Phil's living room and her house, essentially, on a stage in the UK. And weirdly, the studio we shot at is called Dukes Island.

I s**t you not, this is real. I couldn't believe it when they told me that, but my production designer, Kitty Doris-Bates, is incredible. She built this house. Every time you see Celia, a scene with Celia Imrie in it or any of us with her, we're all in England. And then we shot an entire episode in England, which turned out to be incredibly important and just these immersive storylines all merging and coming into a [harmonious] experience.

There is a thematic arc to the season, as with every season. The thing that I found was really interesting was how everything circled back to this idea of what home means. Specifically: In previous seasons and the entire series is about Sam and her relationships with her children, Duke, Max, and Frankie, her relationship with Phil, with being a mother and a daughter and a friend. And through all of this, the house has been this constant.

Mm-hmm [affirmative].

You've directed so many of these beautiful sweeping shots of the house. We're all familiar with the art, the furniture, every detail of it. And that's something that this season plays with in a very real way. Was that kind of an intentional thing as you went in, or did you see it developing as the season progressed?

You mean in terms of the house specifically?

Just in terms of the house and the idea of home is a constant.

It came from — well, how do we talk about the feeling that we all just had, and the feeling that we're living in, and that fear? What did we do? We all went back to basics. We all started going for walks. We all started looking at the stuff that was in our homes. "Oh my God, those four boxes have been sitting there for five years. I can't go out there. I might as well go through the boxes." We started de-hoarding. We wanted to go to Goodwill and give stuff away. Goodwill wasn't open, so we had...

It was just all these different, crazy things. People started cooking. They started making sourdough fricking bread. If I heard one more thing about a f**king sourdough starter, I'm like, okay, I didn't do a sourdough—

I didn't either.

But it's all of those things and holding on to what we have, that's what people were realizing. Your family is so dear to you. So many people lost people and people got sick. It's just like to appreciate what you have and to... I mean, I had so many people living with me at one time. I was cooking three meals a day. And then I would go outside and go, "oh my God, we have a backyard. We have a small space." Everything just had a new kind of veneer on it that was the same thing the day before and the month before.

But now, how it felt so precious and life is so precious, I doubled down on that "Better Things" feeling. And just wanted to kind of go hard in that direction and really be able to explore and take these characters — Max, Frankie, Duke, Phil, Sam, the village — who all get a little kind of tip-of-the-hat moment in this season, and let everybody have a little bit of a win and keep this show like you would keep in a time capsule. That it's there for you to kind of unlock different feelings that you want to feel and different lessons that you learned.

There were some big decisions that I'm not going to go into specifically, but what were some of the things that you thought like, "this is a change that we're going to kind of challenge the audience with" when it comes to not just the house in terms of structure, but about the environment.

Yeah. I mean, well, things that were a constant shifted, but the energies are there because the energies have been poured into those places and those characters. And also, it's massively important to watch somebody go through something hard or challenging because we're all going through that at a certain point. That was something that... Duke's getting older. She's a teenager now and that can suck for everybody who's experiencing it, the teenager and the person who's raising the teenager and the friends of the teenager.

It's shining a light... I mean, without doing spoilers, I'm trying to speak...

Yeah, it's tough, I know.

Speaking code. I'm speaking in code.

This will all make sense once you've seen it!

Totally.

I'm going to quote something to you, which is Max says to Duke at one point, "Hey, I was 13 too, but my 13 is not your 13," which is kind of amazing to watch the show in that I still picture Duke as so tiny. And yet, Max is an adult now and Duke is at that age. That must have been interesting to play with just in terms of circling back to like, okay, the oldest teenager in the house is now an adult and in many ways a co-parent.

Yes. That enabled Sam to be able to go and do that job. Whereas before, this one job, she's like, "Well, I can't go. I have responsibilities." She never really could imagine that her own daughter would be the one who'd be helping her out and really stepping up. Seeing Max go through her challenge or whatever the thing — code, code, code — and then be able to step up and really take care and take charge, and then say to Sam, "This mom sh*t is not for pussies," that kind of validation for a mom is kind of just like thank you.

You've said this before that an unofficial motto for the show has been, "hey, bad for my life, great for the show."

Yeah.

One thing that we have gotten to experience through the show and also watching you and your career is that you took the creative reins of the show since season three. It has just blossomed from there. Just completely become this piece of art. And the fact that you're self-taught as a cinematographer, director, all of those things is pretty amazing. We've seen Sam kind of take charge as a director in her own life and in her career in the show.

This season, she's reflecting on what a lot of people are choosing right now — which is, if this isn't making me happy, I'm not going to do it even if it means that I'm going to forego a sure thing to pursue something that I think is interesting.

Yeah. I'm so glad you brought that up, because when I look back, it was seven years ago that we started "Better Things," even though it's five seasons. There was work. There was real good work opportunity for me that I had to say no to in order to pioneer this and [get to] where I am now. My show wasn't a sure thing. It wasn't picked up, but I needed to stop everything and completely focus on getting the show made.

That is a very big moment for Sam, particularly after she finds out that she comes from people who are workers and laborers and things can get taken away from you. When she says, "This is a shanda! You never turn down work." You know Yiddish, Mel.

When you said that, I laughed. Yes. [Shanda is a Yiddish term for shame.]

Yiddish is so great because it sounds exactly like what it is. But she's like, you don't turn down work, but she knew that this was wrong. This felt wrong. This was going backwards. She was going to Belarus and she didn't even get to hang out with Donald Glover. He got shot out in Indiana. You know what I mean? It's a big step for her because Sam, you see her throughout this show and her career teaching an acting class, acting in a car commercial, doing voices, all of it, like directing her own segment on the Jess Barden show, you see all of that and it's all led to this thing.

She doesn't even know if she's going to succeed, but she's going to try. She's going to Eleanor Roosevelt the s**t out of it, which is when... Remember what our girl said, do something every day that scares you. I remember that quote. And it's like it's only scary when you haven't done it. And then when you've done it, it's not scary anymore.

I think that's a big thing when people are talking about pivoting, especially pivoting mid-career or midlife.

Yeah.

There's this visual that it's supposed to be daring or absolutely, like, done out of survival, but the way that you presented it, it is the survival and it's also the path to thriving, which I think is so wonderful for Sam and for you and seeing that.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that I've said with you that I wished I wasn't so myopic earlier on in my life. My wish is for everybody to try lots of things. I mean, don't quit your day job, but do other things. And then maybe one day you can make a living doing the thing you love.


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Exactly. We're unfortunately coming towards the end, but I want to make sure that I ask about the music. I could ask you about the food too, because I love the fact that in this season, Sam makes these elaborate meals for herself.

Yeah, and I know you cook too, but it's fun to see her make that drink.

Yes.

This elaborate drink, like a margarita, and it's not just like you go home and you pour tequila in a glass and that's it. Goodnight, nurse! But that somebody is doing thing that's loving for themselves, even though Max comes over and she gives it to her. Whatever. That's really important too. I mean, I guess if the show went on, we would see Sam cooking for herself all the time.

Yes, that would be great. The music. You have two selections, I don't think this is giving anything away, from Monty Python.

Yeah… There's one cue in the first episode that is called "The Galaxy Song," and it was a cue that I introduced my music supervisor to and she fell in love with it. You feel the world and the planets orbiting, and you hear the merry-go-round song and it's just... Oh, it's just got all that feeling. We're welcoming everybody back to "Better Things" after two years of being down. We just go back in on the ride. It's just a gorgeous song. It's incredible.

I mean, Eric Idle is my hero and hearing his beautiful voice sing, I wanted the season to start with him saying, "Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, and things seem hard or tough," it's just the best way to start because we've all been down, and we still are and we're still scared, but we cannot give up. We have to keep moving. For years, I would be like the Earth is at the tipping point. The polar caps are melting. Yes, we have to do something about that, but also we have to keep living.

And the only way to do that is to have hope and to keep the young people going. That was my little present. I wrote a letter to Eric Idle and he allowed me to use that cue, and I'm forever grateful.

New episodes of "Better Things" premiere at 10 p.m. Mondays on FX and are streaming on Hulu. You'll be able to see episodes weekly and you definitely should. It will make you feel better about life.

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Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Better Things Eric Idle Fx Monty Python Pamela Adlon Salon Talks