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How Pamela Adlon mined her own ‘invisibility’ to create one of TV’s best comedies

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Pamela Adlon at her office in Beverly Hills. The creator and star of “Better Things” bids farewell to the series on Monday after five seasons.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Pamela Adlon has been prepping for the end since the beginning. The “Better Things” creator, star, showrunner, director and producer never assumed her loosely autobiographical comedy about a single mom and working actor raising three kids in the wilds of Los Angeles would charm critics, win a Peabody Award and last five seasons, making her character, Sam Fox, a patron saint of unconventional parenting and symbol of fierce love.

“I ended every season as if it was the last anyway because I never knew if my show was going to get picked up or not,” said Adlon, whose series really does end Monday on FX. “That’s just my mentality: Nothing is ever promised.”

Life is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants odyssey with Adlon, a former child actor whose credits include “The Facts of Life,” “Grease 2” and “Californication.” (She also won an Emmy for voicing Bobby Hill in Mike Judge’s animated series “King of the Hill.”) Her L.A. office is filled with remnants of “Better Things,” which premiered in 2017: artwork from Sam’s busy household hangs on the walls, notes from the final season’s writing sessions are still scrawled across dry-erase boards.

Adlon herself embodies the spirit of her character: When she sees the gardener outside, she greets him with a hearty “Roberto!” in her unmistakable, husky voice. “I sound like Sophia Loren calling your name at the Academy Awards,” she adds, referring to Roberto Benigni’s lead actor win for “Life Is Beautiful.” “Remember that?” Roberto pretends he does before handing her a bucket of loquats freshly picked from the tree out front. “Thank you! I’m gonna make these into preserves. Gotta order jars,” she yells to no one in particular.

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Like Adlon, Sam is a force. She moves through the world with a terminal curiosity and often forgets her inside voice, much to the embarrassment of her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), the disdain of her middle child, Frankie (Hannah Riley), and the admiration of her baby girl, Duke (Olivia Edward). She defiantly defends the selfish behavior of her British mother/next-door neighbor, Phil (Celia Imrie), and has come to terms with her uptight accountant brother, Marion (Kevin Pollak).

Now Adlon is coming to terms with leaving them behind and moving toward her new future, always with her family, friends and “tribe” in mind.

For both Pamela Adlon and the character she plays in ‘Better Things’ on FX, cooking and entertaining are vital. She invited us into her home to see why.

Was making the final episode of “Better Things” like sending your last kid to college?

That’s a good analogy. Everybody keeps asking, “Are you sad?” But I have been through this massive transition before because two of my kids are out of the house already. When I was in the U.K. finishing the season, I wrote to all my kids and said, “I dreamt that you guys were all babies again.” So that mournful thing that you go through as a parent, it’s real.

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One of the many things I’ll miss about “Better Things” is how it captured the bone-tired, often thankless realities of motherhood alongside the beauty and intimacy of raising kids and nurturing extended family and friends. The show wasn’t centered around a conflict between family and career. Sam wasn’t desperate for a martini at the end of every episode.

That was the opposite of what this show was going to be. I remember when [FX marketing executive] Stephanie Gibbons pitched the key art campaign ... she’s like, “So we know about the exhausted mom with the pencil behind her ear and she’s [Adlon messes her hair then blows it out of her face with an exasperated huff]. That’s not you. This is you,” and took out the [mock-up] of Sam face-down on the bed, with her legs on the wall. The pitch of my show wasn’t like: She’s a single mom who’s trying to get away to have sex and this and that. None of that’s realistic. My friends and I could rob a bank and nobody would notice. It’s that invisibility.

Aging is another theme tackled with brutal honesty throughout the series.

Nobody ever tells you about menopause. I sent out an email to my friends called Bellies and Beards. I was like, “Do you guys have any stories about menopause? Tell me about your experience.”My friends would write me back and say, “I’ll talk to you, but you can’t use my name. I don’t want anybody to know what I went through.” The shame. I was like, “Jesus, well, I want to know how to keep my bones strong and to keep from growing a beard and do I need to do more sit-ups?” I was able to illustrate the evolution that we go through physically from our 40s into our 50s. I was in my closet trying on clothes, and I was like, “Are you f— kidding me?” I couldn’t get on these pants that had fit me two weeks before. Instead of getting really bummed out, I put them in a bag and I said, “I’m going to do this in my show.”

So the beginning of Season 3, when Sam’s struggling to get her jeans on, those were actually your real pants?

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Yes! I used to say that the motto of my show was, “Bad for my life, good for my show.” So if something bad happened to me, people will be able to relate to it by seeing the story play out on the show. That’s been a win-win for all of us.

What makes Season 5 feel like the end?

I leaned into it a little bit harder, a lot of tipping the hat and things like that. It was fun to kind of put a little punctuation mark on all the characters — Wait! You have to come with me so I can show you something really cool. [Adlon motions for me to follow her down the hallway toward her writing room. Along the way she sings in a deep, bluesy baritone] “Lorraine! Lorraine!” You know that Solomon Burke song? “Sexy! Yeah, baby. Oh yeah, mama. Baby!” ... OK, so this is my writers room. All the episodes are here [she points to dry-erase boards covered with notes]. I don’t know if I can ever wipe these. This should be a f— installation. Look, here’s the finance talk with Marion. Feng shui. British citizenship. Sam comes home to dog diarrhea, but we made it Max instead. Oh, and up here, these are my neighbors’ names so I don’t forget them. That doesn’t have anything to do with my show.

“I was at South by Southwest once where a lot of my FX executive friends were in the audience,” Adlon says of “Better Things.” “And I just said out loud that they’re paying for my therapy because I was able to work so much stuff out in the show.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

How different are you from Sam? Because honestly, being here with you now, you are like the same person.

Every action has a reaction. This show and my life have been in tandem. It’s not like parallel lives, Sam and Pamela. They affect each other. They walk hand-in-hand. I was at South by Southwest once where a lot of my FX executive friends were in the audience, and I just said out loud that they’re paying for my therapy because I was able to work so much stuff out in the show.

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Did your real-life parenting experiences influence storylines in the show, or vice versa?

Both. Like when Sam comes home from Chicago after she was on a plane that caught fire, there’s like [a party in the house]. She goes upstairs, and Frankie’s there. She’s asks, “Why are you here? There’s like 40 people downstairs,” and Frankie’s like, “I have to read a play.” When Sam asks how much of it she’s read already, Frankie says, “Nothing.” So Sam’s like, “Jesus. I can’t even begin to tell you about my day. The plane I was on...” But then Sam stops and says, “OK, how about I read a chapter, you read a chapter?” And they read “A Raisin in the Sun” back and forth. And that was the end of the episode.

And that came from your real life?

Yes. It was late at night and my middle daughter, Odessa, hadn’t read “A Raisin in the Sun.” And I thought, What if I don’t complain? What if I don’t push back because I could have been on a burning plane that day, which is the metaphor for being a parent. Being a single parent of three girls, the relentlessness ... What if I just sucked it up? And I did that night with Odessa. Instead of letting it debilitate me, I turned it around and just started getting into the prose of “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s now one of the great memories for me and my daughter, and I was able to put that in the show and to share that with people.

Later, as I’m walking out the door, Adlon hands me a worn copy of “A Raisin in the Sun” and hugs me: “Wait!! Don’t leave before taking this. You’ll need this for your son.”

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The show has also been great at exploring humanity and relationships in a city that’s not exactly known for those things.

Like the crying, sad guy on the steps this season toward the end of Episode 5. He’s like, “I’m sad” and I’m like,“I’m sad too, a lot of people are.” And just then, the entitled lady walks up: [screeches] “Can you please not take up the whole steps?”Then they laugh at her.Or in [Season 3]with Charlie Robinson when I’m making the monster movie. I worked with him when I was a teenager in “Night Court,” and now we got to have this beautiful scene. He’s passed away since. That scene does not move the needle or have anything to do with the storyline. It’s just a beautiful scene, and my network let me keep it. That’s one of the things that [audiences] responded to, that you’re looking at people that have nothing to do with [the story], but you’re getting inside them anyway.

How do you follow up “Better Things”?

I want to make more television, but I can’t talk about projects I’m working on now because they’re not official. Two years ago, I started my production company, so I have like five different series that I’m developing right now. I’m going to be directing a movie in the fall, which I’m not allowed to talk about, but I just did. I’m adapting my friend’s memoir to direct, and I’m using this time for what it’s meant to be. These are, hopefully, my golden working years.

In the future I think “Better Things” will be considered an influential series that’s changed television’s depictions of family and motherhood.

Oh, this is like the “Eulogy” episode. I like when Sam goes,No, I want it now!” But yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead, enjoy our coattails.

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