A month before Better Things was set to premiere on FX, the network set up a room during the Television Critics Association summer press tour where reporters could conduct interviews, black curtains cordoning off various actors into their own dark cubbyholes. On my way in, I passed the casually cool You’re the Worst cast and the chill Atlanta crowd en route to the very back corner, where I found Better Things creator, star, director, and writer Pamela Adlon.
As I walked over, Adlon’s face broke into a huge grin. “A woman!” she cried, throwing her hands into the air. Apparently she’d already been in interviews for a couple of hours, but had only spoken to two women reporters, including me.
It was a depressing statistic, but as Adlon said it, I couldn’t help grinning right back at her.
Adlon — whom you may recognize from her regular appearances on the Louis C.K. comedy Louie, which she also produces — is an expert at spinning that kind of “another day, more bullshit” moment into something revealing and even conspiratorial, a connection between two people who catch each other’s knowing glances while rolling their own eyes.
She’s putting that skill to use on Better Things, which follows Sam (Adlon) as she juggles a workhorse acting career and raising three daughters. The show chronicles the everyday frustrations of single parenting, diving into the often grueling work while reminding us that what keeps Sam going is a fierce love for her girls.
And while her frequent colleague C.K. has a co-creator credit on Better Things, Adlon is the one calling the shots on the show. She not only directs and stars in it but also draws from her own life as a single working mother to mold the stories.
The series starts off a bit slow, working to establish Sam’s life and the dynamics between her and each of her three daughters (played by relative newcomers Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward, and Mikey Madison). But after a couple of episodes, Better Things settles into a rhythm. Each of the three girls becomes compelling, and even a little mean, in her own specific way. And Sam’s frustration and devotion to her children is hilarious, forceful, and spiky in a way that’s all Adlon’s own.
Neither Adlon nor her show ever lets you get too comfortable. When I sat down to talk to Adlon after she’d raised her arms in triumph upon realizing her next interviewer was a woman, she looked me dead in the eye, lip curling into a Cheshire Cat smile. “Okay,” she said, “I defy you to ask me something new.”
It was half joke, half real frustration — and, as Better Things proves, that’s exactly Adlon’s sweet spot.
Though we only had a few minutes, here’s what Adlon had to say about creating her own show, using her life experiences, and how daughters can be the cruelest mistresses.
(And, for what it’s worth, my first question did manage to catch her off guard.)
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Framke: My main question — which I don’t know if men would necessarily think to ask; maybe the other woman did — is how did you approach making the daughter being so mean to their mother funny? Watching the show, I found myself saying, “I know I’ve done this to my mother,” where I would say the exact meanest thing I could think of, like the scene where Sam’s oldest daughter, Max, is being downright cruel, and Sam pulls the car over to tell her she’s being unfair.
Pamela Adlon: Ooh, yeah. I watch that scene and kind of step outside myself. I get so excited about that scene, because I feel like everybody can relate, even if you’re not a teenage girl or a mom, or anything.
I’ll tell you how, and I’m probably going to cry, because my oldest daughter is moving out today. She’s 19 and the inspiration for Max (Madison). But she [once] said the words to me which Max says in the pilot: “I’m going to make your life a living hell.” She said those exact words to me.
Then after we had time for reflection, and after she graduated high school, went to school in Chicago … we hang out all the time and she says, “Oh, my god, Mom, I was such a nightmare.” And we just start laughing.
My kids have such wonderful self-reflection, and the ability to look back even now while they’re still in their childhood. I’m blown away by it. I’d like to take some credit for it, but I know it’s in them.
It’s that that allows me to be able to put it in [the show]. Just this off-the-cuff cuntiness, and they don’t even know it. So they can be awful, awful people to me and each other — and then at the end of the day, there’s no one else you’d rather be with.
CF: On some level, though, you know family are the people who will let you get away with saying something like that to your mother or sister.
PA: They always say that! “It’s safe here. I can say anything.” And I’m like, “Ugh, really not, though! I don’t want you to!”
CF: You can be forgiven for it, but that doesn’t make it any less shitty.
PA: That’s it.
CF: Better Things has the bones of a family sitcom, like the 16-year-old girl who’s partying and stuck to her phone, or the middle child trying to figure out her place in the family. The tropes are there, but they’re not flat. How did you incorporate them in a way that makes them feel fresh?
PA: Typically, if we were going to be making the show 20 years ago or something, if there was a writers’ room they’d be asking why [Frankie, the middle daughter] is always counting on her fingers, or why she’s dressed like that. Like, “Is she a boy or a girl?” They’d ask why Sam snaps at her daughter for no reason.
Well, there is no reason! Everything doesn’t have to be completely explained.
I don’t want to explain everything. I don’t want to do it conventionally, and I want to say it’s okay to fuck up if you’re a parent. It’s okay for your kids to know if you are flawed, and it’s okay for you to let them know that. It’s okay to apologize to your own kids. It’s okay for you to feel raw, but it’s important that you shouldn’t take everything personally when it comes to raising your kids.
Certainly, being a woman on your own raising kids, you don’t have a second [person] to back you up. I have no zone defense at all! I’m just out there, in the wild.
So I want to tell that story. I’m very interested in that story. I’m not interested in knowing what happened to [Sam’s ex], or about the divorce, or anything like that. I’m interested in this community.
I really wanted to focus on these girls, and this woman, and this life … that’s what our lives are. Telling that story? Massively important to me.
Better Things premieres September 8 at 10 pm on FX.