How Pamela Adlon is turning life's messiness into essential art with Better Things
With two Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award under her belt, Pamela Adlon went into the third season of Better Things with high expectations to match.
Over the course of the FX half-hour’s run, Adlon has taken on more responsibility: In addition to serving as head writer, she directed a few episodes in season 1, and the next year she helmed the entire season, a rare feat for a continuing series. All this in addition to running things behind the scenes and starring in nearly every scene as the main character, Sam Fox, a version of Adlon herself.
In making this third season, Adlon had some added pressure to work through: the departure of her co-creator Louis C.K., fired by FX in disgrace after allegations of sexual misconduct against him surfaced in late 2017. The public scrutiny and pain of losing a longtime creative partner helps to explain the delay in season 3’s premiere, arriving nearly a year and a half after Better Things’ sophomore run concluded.
But this is fundamentally a personal work for Adlon, a fact that translates in her intimate direction, deeply human performance, and autobiographical writing. She takes from her own life — from specific details like her mother living across the street to her broader experiences as a single, working parent of three girls — to create something that feels utterly unique and gorgeously universal at the same time. It’s why, despite the creative shakeup, the show remains one of TV’s very best.
EW caught up with Adlon ahead of the season 3 premiere about Better Things’ evolution, how Adlon manages so many tasks at once, and more. Read on below. Better Things returns Feb. 28 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you want to further the family saga this season on Better Things?
PAMELA ADLON: For me, the first thought is, “Oh my God, let me get my draft.” I think about things practically. Once I get my script, that feeling of being able to lay all that type and get all that hard work in — your anxiety goes away when you have your material. I was mapping it out: “What can I do that moves the needle forward for the story and this family?” The truth is, when you’re in a family, the needle is always moving forward — whether you want it to or not. You can’t stay stagnant because everybody’s changing. That was really the key for me, for this season. I wanted to see everybody unraveling a little bit. I started with that intention, but things change.
So with that, how does the show reflect your parenting philosophy? The show has always felt so uniquely authentic to me, in the way it draws parent-child relationships.
I am such a different parent now than I was at the beginning. It’s really unbelievable. My parents were strict — I was going to say conservative, but my mother is very offended when I use that word [Laughs] — and I come from that time: born in the ’60s, a little bit more sheltered. When I was raising my kids, it was ingrained in me, what’s appropriate and not appropriate. I started letting go of that. Your kids change with the times, and if you stay rigid, you’re going to miss out on your kid.
You’re writing, starring in, directing, and running the show. You have a rest period during lunch, right?
I always say that I should have a GoPro on me while I’m in production. I go to the set, I eat lunch for breakfast, and then at lunch I go into any room, turn off the lights, take off my pants, and either fall asleep or rest. For me, it’s about resting your body and your brain. It’s the only way I can get through these days. Like, if I’m going to the bathroom to take a sh—, I’ll forget because 50 people will be like, “Can I just run this by you?” They need to do it because it’s their job! But then it’s like, “Oh God, I never went boom-boom.”
Has it gotten easier, at least, running a show for three years now?
I’m always learning. Even though I had to overcome a lot more obstacles to get to this place, it was a lot easier for me than season 2 and season 1 — which is normal, because I’m strengthening muscles and developing new ones that I never knew that I had.
Do you feel more confident?
Oh yeah. Every year brings more confidence. I have more confidence in myself, my team has the confidence in themselves, and they have confidence in me. That’s the one thing I learned. My first AD on season 1 of my show, Maria Mantia, she said, “It’s your ability to make decisions that makes things run smoothly, that helps everybody feel safe and secure.” If you’re not insecure about the decisions you’re making, things will run like clockwork.
You’ve always brought a lot of your life into the show. How has that autobiographical experience evolved over time?
Now I have three seasons under my belt. It’s a vision. My show is the way I like to look at life. It’s the way that I giggle to myself about certain things. It’s the way that I see how things give me anxiety or how I reflect on situations. Now I have this tool and this way that I can share the way I see life.
Has this impacted your personal life?
Always. Every job and show makes you think about things in the way that either that show or that movie is affecting you. My show is really therapeutic for me. When I think about the ways that I look at my life — the way I look at my family, my mom — it’s had a huge, positive impact on me.
The show blends realism with dreaminess. Speaking as the show’s sole director, what’s the goal there?
I like fluidity, cinematically, where it almost feels documentary-style. That’s a big influence. And then I like things where you go, “Why would they do that there? Why are they all touching that statue?” I like things that make people have to figure it out on their own — which is also a way that the show is very dreamy. It’s a reflection. I’m giving you the space to listen and feel and watch. I like a magical feeling.