There’s endless talk in Hollywood today about the value of entertainment in a chaotic, frightening, otherwise volatile world: TV shows offer up a welcome “distraction.”
That’s why when Pamela Adlon explained what her intention was with Better Things, the quiet, powerful, slice-of-life FX comedy series that thus far has garnered the industry journeywoman a Peabody Award, an Emmy nomination, and the written equivalent of a standing ovation from critics, it stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I wanted to transport people into a reality, not out of reality,” she said. Holy shit.
Not only does that perfectly encapsulate the appeal of Better Things and the unshakable familiarity and intimacy you feel while watching it, but it’s also something that I’ve never heard from a creator before—at least not in the context of a show like this one, which is not about politics or ripped-from-the-headlines or intended to make you reevaluate your relationship to social mores or biases, like an “into a reality” description might suggest.
Better Things is kind of just about life.
Season 2 of Better Things begins Thursday on FX. It’s a jewel of a show that Adlon created, writes, stars in, and for which, this year, she directs every single episode.
It was longtime creative partner Louis C.K.’s suggestion that Adlon develop her own series. They’ve worked together for the better part of a decade, first with HBO’s short-lived Lucky Louie and more prominently with FX’s Louie, on which she’s served as writer, producer, and Emmy-nominated guest star; now, he writes and produces Better Things.
When he suggested it, Adlon had been acting for more than 35 years, known for brash supporting roles on comedies like Californication and for a prolific voice acting résumé that includes King of the Hill and Recess—and, of course, her work on Louie. But the idea of making her own show gave her hives.
“I’m much more of a caretaker of other people’s stories and witness of other people’s stories than that for me,” she said ahead of Season 1. Now, she couldn’t be happier that she did: “If I think back to when I used to fantasize about making a television show that I wasn’t just acting in, this would be exactly the way I would want to tell a story.”
Better Things is a hard show to describe. It’s loosely autobiographical, in that it is actually closely biographical.
Like Adlon, her character, Sam, is a divorced single mom, a working actor balancing raising her kids and dating and maintaining a decent career. But it’s not really a “how does she do it” show, only it kind of exactly is. Yet somehow that’s beside the point. It sounds pretentious when you say that it’s about how these characters react and adapt as, simply, life happens around them. But that’s what the show is.
The series is intensely personal. Adlon handpicks every single song and piece of clothing—much of her wardrobe is even from her own closet—and she even wrote out the opening title credits by hand. The Season 2 premiere takes place the night of a party Sam throws at her house. Characters are holding vintage glasses from Adlon’s actual home, walking past walls that, as she told NPR, were painted by the handyman she actually uses.
The more we talk about the series being difficult to describe, the more we fear that some might think it’s some sort of bizarre experimental piece; it’s extremely accessible. In an attempt to help people understand what her show is, Adlon refers to it shorthand as “The Big Feelings Show.”
“I’m just kind of sharing the way that I look at life,” she says. “I’m not telling people how to feel or how to react, and I’m not putting neat little buttons on things. Because that’s the way life is, you know? Some huge, possibly cataclysmic thing can happen one day and the next day everything is back to normal.”
She says that people stop her all the time to tell her that they think the show is hysterical. “I’m like, really? I cry every scene that I shoot!” she laughs. “It’s so emotional.”
That laugh is infectious. There’s a naturally droll timbre to her voice, but she radiates an enthusiasm powerful enough to break through her signature rasp when she speaks. The soothing warmth that blankets you when she speaks, then, almost becomes surprising.
Excitement expels from her constantly, so much so that she spends much of a conversation catching up to it, with answers involving a series of starts and stops while she hones in on the point she can’t wait to make. For all that energy, though, the remarkable thing about Better Things and the character of Sam, and thus, Adlon, too, is the amount of time the series spends in stillness, with Sam just serenely observing: her friends, her daughters, just taking in life.
“That’s the way I am as a person, and I like to be able to tell the story that way,” she says. “It’s a relief [that viewers appreciate it] because it shows you that people don’t need this bum-bum-bum fast pace of triggers, buttons, blows, and all that kind of stuff. People will relax and get into a story and a rhythm and a feeling and not be nervous if there’s like air and things are sitting and breathing.”
Of course, the media is rarely content with letting things sit and breathe. This is a show that talks frankly about sex and empowerment, sexuality and identity. Sam’s daughter, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), might identify as a gender other than female. In a time of Women’s Marches and the heightened immediacy of protecting LGBTQ rights and gender expression and identity, conversations about shows like Better Things that discuss these issues tend to become inherently political.
“I want there to be a timeless feeling to my show,” Adlon says in response to any attempt to read politics into the series. “I’m not commenting on what everybody is or does. We can discover what people’s sexuality or identity is in the show slowly, because that’s the way it happens in life.”
If not necessarily political, though, there is a natural impulse to talk about the feminine energy of the show, an energy that makes perfect sense given how personal the series is to Adlon, that it’s inspired by her relationship to her daughters, and, you know, that she’s a woman.
The Season 1 finale, for example, was titled “Only Women Bleed.” There’s a phenomenal monologue Sam delivers in the new season about having to dance around the feelings of a guy she’s been sleeping with, inspired by the realization that he’s been shitty since they met. It inspired a question at a press conference this summer about shows like Better Things finally depicting the “incremental increase in male shittiness” pervading society.
“I didn’t want my show to be this ovary-dripping, let’s shit on men thing all the time,” she says now. “But on the other hand, I would be like, ‘Oh my god we gotta shit on all these men all the time!’”
Mostly, her concern is with male dominance: “So it’s like if everybody could bring down the male dominance and bring up a human consciousness.”
That’s not to say that she doesn’t understand the power of this show existing, with her at the helm controlling every single aspect of it. Before Season 1 premiered, she talked about how she viewed Better Things as a love letter to her own three daughters. With two seasons under her belt, how has it affected her relationship with them?
“Well they see their mom being a boss,” she says, blunt as always. “It’s just been an incredible thing for my whole family. I’m so incredibly proud of it, to hand this to my daughters as their legacy.”