Pamela Adlon and The Passionate Reactions to Better Things

The creator of Better Things talks about the series' high points and how she's handling its success.

Just listing off the roles Pamela Adlon fills on her FX hit Better Things–star, executive producer, showrunner, head writer, and director–sounds exhausting; yet she is wholly unphased. “It’s not as hard as you think,” she says with conviction. After a full year of production on season 3, the whirlwind of a press tour is coming to a close–with stops in LA, New York, and now at SXSW in Austin–and Adlon can see the homestretch. Opting to break up the monotony of the interview circuit, she feels more comfortable if our conversation takes place sitting pretzel style on the floor of an empty Austin hotel conference room. The room is large but there’s an ease to Adlon that makes it feel cozy and maternal. She collects her thoughts and identifies a neater title for her stewardship of Better Things: “I’m the mom of the show,” she says. 

As my own mother has seared into my, at times, ungrateful brain, motherhood can be a thankless gig. Adlon’s time as Show Mom, however, is as if Mother’s Day subsumed the Groundhog’s Day time loop. With each passing season, the chorus of critical praise for Better Things swells. Adlon was recognized with Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress for seasons 1 and 2, and smart money would put her on track for a trifecta in 2019. Even with the buzz around the show and her performance, she can disappear back into everyday life. She playfully checks her ego when I bring up her success: “Last night I went to an FX party and they weren’t going to let me in. They didn’t recognize me.” 

Fans are noticing her work though and it’s their reactions that are hitting home for Adlon. “People want to touch me,” she says. “They’re shaking and they’re reaching out to me because they’re seeing themselves.”

In our interview, we try to get to the bottom of why people are having such a visceral reaction to her character Sam Fox and the show, which is closely based on her life as a working mother in Hollywood. Though our time is brief amid the madness of the film festival, we chat about influences, her all-in creative process, life outside the show, balancing Show Mom with Real Mom, and the high moment of the series thus far. 

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The show has been so well received by critics, audiences, and your Emmy-voting peers. What’s it like to get that gratification? 

It’s been unbelievable. I haven’t really been able to process it. I guess everything just started coming out. I just finished post two weeks ago. It took me a year. I started February 5th last year and then I wrapped on February 13th this year. 

I released the first eight episodes to the press, and the feedback was starting to come in. I’ve just been kind of keeping quiet and keeping my head down. Then the other day I said to my daughters: “I think this is like the biggest day of my life professionally ever.” They’re all like: “That’s great mom.” You know what I mean? Because you can’t take it all too seriously, because the rug could get pulled out any minute. 

I just like that people are getting off on it so hard, that people are passionate about it because of the way it makes people feel. The reaction I’m getting from people publicly is people want to touch me. They’re crying. You know what I mean? They’re shaking and they’re reaching out to me because they’re seeing themselves. They’re relating to it. It’s hitting a nerve, and that’s an amazing thing to be able to not only have a show, but have a show that people are so passionate about.

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Is that because you’re putting more of yourself into the show? Is that why you think people are connecting so much, because you are placing a piece of you into this art?

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I have said that my show is very handmade and it is. I’m taking care of every detail. It’s the shit that I like to look at. It’s the shit I like to listen to. It’s the way I like to hear people talk. It’s the way I like to feel. I like things to feel really real and authentic. I’m able to do that and bring all of that together. I’m the mom of the whole show, so it’s my baby. 

What’s it been like trying to juggle all the hats as the executive producer, showrunner, head writer, director, and lead actor?

It’s not as hard as you think. People say, “Oh my God, how can you direct every episode?” Well, I’m there anyway because I’m the lady in the show. What it does is it eliminates the process of saying, “well, I have to run it by Jim. I have to run it by Tony. I have to run it by.” I cut out all the middlemen. My department heads come to me when they have absolutely exhausted everything that they need to do within their department. Then, I answer the question. The buck stops with me. It helps us get through the days quicker without sacrificing the quality of what we’re making.

With all that creative control on set, who are the people in your inner circle that you look to for feedback or constructive pushback? 

Creatively it’s me, and I will ask my first AD for her opinion. I’ll ask my script supervisor for her opinion. If I’m walking around, and I have a question, I’ll go and ask my focus puller. That’s my team. I don’t really have a creative second or somebody who I can bounce things off of. I was lucky enough this season to have writers that I would call, if I could get one of them on the phone, and run something by them. I need to say something here: it’s extremely collaborative because the people who I have working around me are such professionals, and because they’re so invested and in love with the material that we’re doing.

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further reading: The Best TV Shows on Netflix

What feels like the high moment of the series so far? What was the most satisfying thing that you were able to put out into this world and have people react to?

It would have to be the whole graduation episode and doing the dance. That was a secret from the beginning. I pulled those pages. I didn’t release the whole script to Mikey and only to the departments that needed it. It was always on a need-to-know basis, because I wanted to keep it a secret for so long. Building that beautiful stage, my production designer, Brian Berg, and on the day having a techno crane and having this whole crew, and also White Rock. Going to Canada and shooting that episode and having the First Nation’s man, Ray Thunderchild, and then the sad lady, and all the elements we were dealing with on the bay. The tide would come in and we would be underwater in five minutes. Those kinds of things, being able to look back and say that we got the best we possibly could have gotten. 

Who are some of the women along the way in your career that helped you get to this point, and that you look to as creative inspiration? 

I was lucky enough to work with Tracey Ullman on her show, Tracey Takes On, 20 years ago. I was a new mom, and I’m sitting there, and I was playing this radical feminist. I had Bjork knots all over my head. I was sitting there looking at her. She was the director, the star, the showrunner, the writer, and she’s doing all these characters, and she wanted to be home at the end of the day for her kids. She said, “Otherwise, what’s the point?” I watched her just troubleshoot all this, run this crew. That really stuck with me, really stuck with me. I was lucky enough to meet her at the Emmy’s last year. We were on a line and I said, “my name is Pamela.” She’s like, “I know who you are.” She was there with her son and I was able to tell her that story about how she inspired me.

[Note: Better Things was renewed for season 4 a few weeks after the interview took place.] 

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Do you have plans for what a season four would look like? 

Usually, I keep drafts, I keep little folders, I keep little notes and things like that. I’m not going to invest too much thought into that unless I know that I’m doing it.

Since receiving all these accolades and Emmy nominations, are you able to sink back into your personal life and not have your fame conflict with it too much?

Yeah, I live in LA. Oh, absolutely. I’m the most normal person in the world. Listen, all the accolades are amazing. I just came from New York. I was promoting my show, fly into Austin, and last night I went to an FX party and they weren’t going to let me in. They didn’t recognize me.

Wow.

It’s kind of par for the course. Yeah, my daughters and I hang out. I hang out with my friends. I cook, and now I can just kind of figure out what I’m going to do next, because now it kind of stops for a minute.