By Dan Snierson
October 05, 2016 at 01:07 AM EDT
Credit: Jessica Brooks/FX
  • TV Show
  • FX

Pamela Adlon did not take her big break well. A few years ago, Louis C.K. told her that he pitched her name to FX CEO John Landgraf, who was searching for a female-driven comedy. “My first reaction was ‘Are you f—ing crazy?'” she admits.

There was “anxiety and nausea” at the prospect, especially given her loaded schedule as a divorced mom raising three daughters, writing and acting on Louie, having a role on Californication, and doing voice work on animated series. But there also was just… skepticism: “I was like, I’m going to get right to the f—ing starting gate, and they’re going to say, ‘Great, thanks for the scripts! We’re putting Rachel McAdams in these.'”

Eventually Adlon, 50, found the time/nerve, and the result is a true sadcom standout. In the critically admired semiautobiographical comedy Better Things (airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.; it has just been renewed), she plays Sam Fox, an actor/single mom who ragtag-parents her three kids with equal parts blunt honesty and weary warmth. The show offers a raw, fresh take on motherhood. “If an optimist is half full and a pessimist is half empty, she’s half empty, but she’s not putting up with it,” says co-creator C.K. of Adlon. “She’s spitting in the glass, trying to fill it up.” Here, Adlon, the show’s co-creator/writer/director/star, shares seven things about herself and her new series that you are Better off knowing.

1. She’d rather be heard and not seen

A former child actor whose credits include The Facts of Life and Grease 2, Adlon took a break from the camera from the early ’90s to the mid-aughts, instead doing voice work on animated shows like King of the Hill (for which she won an Emmy) and Rugrats to focus on raising her daughters. “If I didn’t have to do any on-camera acting, I’d be happy as a clam,” she says. “You have to memorize, your face has to be a certain face. Animation is just the best way to make a living. I love being in the studio. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s cool and dark in there.” Asked to critique her acting, she pauses for a second and says: “I think my worst tic would be my voice and my face.”

2. Adlon and C.K. are mutual muses

“It’s been amazing, because he really cultivated the producer and writer in me and enabled me to tap into that,” says Adlon, who met C.K. when he cast her in his short-lived 2006 HBO sitcom, Lucky Louie, and later hired her to be a producer and onscreen challenging friend-turned-love interest on FX’s Louie. “We’ve always been giving each other advice and help through the years, him with his stand-up and me with my jobs. We’ve been each other’s phone confidants, and it’s just been extremely fruitful…. He would say to me when I’m writing, ‘Forget about the story, you just have to keep writing.'” In return, she offers him unconventional acting instruction. “If I’m on the set with him shooting Louie, I would be like, ‘What are you doing with your face? Don’t do that. Stop it.’ Or, ‘Start it, do something with your face.'”

3. Her colorful take on parenthood is gray

Where is the father of Sam’s kids? That’s one of many Better situations that Adlon prefers to leave ambiguous. Take androgynous middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood). “When John Landgraf tested the pilot, people were like, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’ Even though [Sam] talked about having three daughters. It wasn’t my concern to say, ‘[Frankie’s] dressed like this and her hair is like this because of this.'” Same goes for Sam’s romantic life. “A lot of people are writing stuff, ‘Oh, she’s with a married man,’ but I haven’t said anything,” Adlon says. “I kinda like seeing people say knee-jerk things and then be wrong.”

Credit: Nicole Wilder-Shattuck/FX

4. It was important to her to depict a rarely seen side of motherhood on TV: isolation

“There’s so much loneliness in the chaos,” she says. “It’s something I kept rolling over and over in my head when I was thinking about my show. There could be noise going on all around you and doors slamming, and it’s just a very lonely feeling. When I walked through my house, I just ducked my head down and tried to avoid the bullets. I would pretend there was a dome over me: ‘Just get to the kitchen, get to your room.'”

5. She bargained to get John Lennon

To say that Adlon felt strongly about using the ex-Beatle’s song “Mother” in the opening credits is to traffic in understatement. “One million percent, I wasn’t even going to let the show be on television without ‘Mother,'” she says, citing the lyrics “Mother/You had me/But I never had you.” “Are you kidding? It’s everything!” When C.K. put it in an early edit of the pilot, “we were just porning out on it,” she raves. Alas, the song was over budget. She wrote a “big Jerry Maguire mission statement plea” to FX for more money—she also sent Yoko Ono a letter—and agreed to lose lots of other music just to keep “Mother.”

6. Adlon saved money elsewhere, too

She wears her own clothes on screen and borrowed artwork from her house. “For the girls, the standard was Goodwill and Jewish Council Thrift and Out of the Closet,” she says. “It’s just my aesthetic and the way my daughters are. They’re scavengers and thrifters. I think it’s an important way to be. You don’t have to wear brand-new s— all the time.”

7. While she borrows from her life with her three kids, she steals from her mom

Adlon put “102 percent” of her mother into Sam’s unfiltered mom, Phil, played by Celia Imrie. (As on the show, Adlon’s mom is her neighbor.) “The things that come out of my mom’s mouth— when she walks into my house now, I get a pen and a piece of paper or I just open my phone.” Meanwhile, the kids’ stories are inspired by Adlon’s childhood (and her friends’). But “everybody’s going to think everything’s real, so my [real] daughters might end up hating me.” That said, they can’t hate everything: “They like the fact that we got VIP-status seats to Beyoncé.”

For more on Better Things, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, or buy it here now — and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos.

Better Things

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  • FX