Pamela Adlon is used to people having “a little bit of a freak-out” when they see her in person, though she’s never sure which of the dozens of TV shows she’s appeared in inspires the outburst.
“It’ll be like, ‘I’m just getting through all the Californifications!’ Or, ‘Oh my god, Grease 2 is my favorite movie!’ Or, ‘You’re King of the Hill!’ (Adlon provides the scratchy, adolescent voice of Bobby Hill.) Like, oh my god, I never know what the thing is.”
But these days, when fans gush over Adlon’s work, it’s her own show they’re talking about. Better Things, which just concluded its first season Thursday night on FX, is by far the star’s most personal project to date. Co-created with Louis C.K., a good friend and collaborator who cast Adlon in both his short-lived HBO show Lucky Louie, and FX’s cult favorite Louie (Adlon wrote on and produced the show before it went on hiatus), Better Things is most easily, and frequently, described as a “female Louie.” The connection is easy to make. Like that show, Adlon’s series chronicles a single, artistically inclined parent named Sam Fox as she navigates the minefields of carpools, play dates, and offspring with minds of their own. And like C.K.’s show, Better Things is more than loosely based on Adlon’s own life, something it makes no bones to try and disguise. But while Louie plays more in the Larry David space of finding humor and pain in the banalities and social quirks of modern life, Adlon dives head-first into issues like racism, religion, as well as the realities that plague women of a certain age: menopause, ovarian egg quality, plastic surgery, a barren dating life. Adlon addresses all this with her signature humorous candor, but she doesn’t shy away from long spells of discomfort, such as when, in one episode, Sam’s mother, played with uppity precision by the British actress Celia Imrie, gives a racially charged dinner table monologue about shopping for panty hose at Harrod’s, while Sam’s guest, played by Lenny Kravitz, politely listens.
With season one of Better Things almost wrapped, Adlon is busy writing the next batch of episodes for FX, a process that she says involves no shortage of angst. “It’s scary when somebody picks up your show because they’re like, okay, where are the scripts? It’s like, holy fuck, what did I do?”
She recently spoke to Co.Create about collaborating on opposite coasts with C.K.; when she realized she needed to write and run her own show; and how she doesn’t want to hit you over the head with a gynecologist visit.
When Adlon sat down to write Better Things, after years of prompting from C.K., she had a trove of material to work with based on years of accumulated musings that she had dutifully written down. The question was how to tie it up neatly in short, episodic narratives. C.K. told her to stop worrying about textbook writing structures like arcs and acts, and, instead, to just write.
“I’ve been writing for years. Writing to this story. And so I was able to start really compiling all of my little vignettes and stories and things like that and taking stuff that happened when I was a girl, or to my friends, or something like that. And it all just started having this natural flow. Over the years, I’ve written different shows or a movie or I wrote a little book. And I’ve kept a journal since I was nine years old. So I was able to go through all of that, there’s just no end to the material that’s at my fingertips right now.”
As for her writing process, “I just said, okay, so what happens? She takes the kids to the doctor, and then the next thing that happens is this. And the next thing that happens is that. That’s just the way life is for Sam Fox. Shit keeps happening to her all the time. So that’s been an important way that I’ve been able to navigate through the writing of these stories and then eventually cobbling them together.
“Louis said to me, ‘Forget about story. Just forget about story.’ Because anything that helps you in your process of writing, to keep the flow going, is massively important. I got caught up on ‘final draft’ because I’m technically very invalid-ed, I would say. But I stopped doing it because I couldn’t even figure out the program. So I just wrote everything longhand or in Word or something. And then, finally, Louis was like, ‘You have to fucking learn how to use final draft! We can’t go through this.’ So I cut and pasted, it was all a very long process for me. But now the stories flow.”
Adlon says of working with C.K., “We’ve been each other’s sounding boards for like a decade now. Even though we live on opposite ends of the country, we have a similar voice when we create and write. It’s really valuable. It’s like being two different composers, like a lyricist and a composer or something like that. We’re really able to connect in that way. Because we’ve been friends for so long, we’ll say, ‘Remember that story you told me about the guy whose wife was pregnant and she just needed to fart, but you guys all thought she was miscarrying?’ And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah. That needs to be an episode of the show.’ And similar on my end.
“We’re always collaborating in terms of the writing. We’ll just write something and then we’ll read it out loud, when it comes to his shows or my show. That’s how we get through the process. It’s very simple. The only difference is we’re 90% of the time not sitting in the same room doing it, which is what other writing teams get to do.”
“When I pitched the series to John Landgraf (FX’s president),” Adlon says, honestly depicting women and aging “was a big part of it. I said, This is an important part of my show. I want this to be part of the conversation. I want to see people like me and my friends represented on television in a realistic portrayal. The way I like to do it is not say, ‘This whole episode is about aging and being in your 40s,’ or whatever. You make it about something else and then you have that be a part of it; that be a detail.
“The scene at my gyno, when Sam then goes and talks to her friends, and her friends are like, ‘Why the fuck are you telling me about your fresh, young eggs?’ It’s a very subtle way of telling that story about how everybody has their own feelings about each other’s situations, you know? So not just hitting people over the head with it, like, look, Sam went to the gynecologist! Otherwise, it’s a very nothing thing. What I’m happy about is how people are responding to the subtlety.”
Adlon is one of the most prolific actors (and voice actors) in Hollywood, having started working at age 12 and never really stopped. But Better Things marks a shift from paid actor to creator and overlord of a deeply personal project. She says she realized she wanted to shift to the creative side when, “I was doing like a guest part on a TV show and it was like there was so much money, but it was such a huge waste of time, and I was kind of walking around scratching my head going, ‘I could do this. I’m ready.’
“I knew I wanted to run a show and produce a show of my own, and employ people and not scrape the marrow off their bones. And that it could be a fun and exciting project. And so I just got through things and said, okay, my obligation here is done. My obligation here is done. Now it’s time for me to buckle down and create this.
“Now I’m not just a gun for hire. It’s my whole thing. It’s an amazing feeling to know that. I said this to somebody the other day, that instead of people just saying, ‘Oh, I saw you on that show!’ or ‘Don’t you play so-and-so on that show?’ Or whatever. It’s not that. It’s, ‘Oh my god, you don’t understand what this show means to me!’ And then the cherry on top is I created it. And I’m making jobs for people and I’m modeling this for my daughters and it’s just a wonderful process. It’s an amazing experience to just be a role model for a lot of people, and to know that I’ve created work for myself and I’m responsible for keeping this fucking train going.”