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“I’m Living In It, But I’m Looking at Everything”: A Q&A With Pamela Adlon

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For years, we clung to Gilmore Girls, the show that best spoke to the elemental, verging-on-co-dependent bond between a single working mother and her female offspring. Then, in 2016, along came Better Things, an autobiographical series co-created by and starring Pamela Adlon as a single mother of three daughters working the L.A. grind. Adlon often describes the show, which returns tonight for an excellent second season, as a “love letter” to her daughters.

You don’t have to be a mother or a daughter to enjoy Better Things. But if, like me, you grew up with a single mother, the show feels particularly revelatory, a testament to a kind of relationship — and a demographic of women — that still feels underrepresented on TV. I spoke with Adlon about directing all ten episodes of the new season, gender roles on the small screen, and mining her life for stories. When the interview was over, she said to say hi to my mom.

It’s crazy how rare it is to see this kind of relationship between mothers and daughters on TV. It’s also pretty rare for a show to be so fully about women and girls and their relationships with each other, not with men.

One part of me was always like, “This is the shitting-on-men-whenever-we-can show.” But really, it wasn’t about that. It wasn’t an on-purpose feminist agenda situation. [The show] means something to so many different people because it’s about living within a family. I’m sharing the way I move through life. I see my life in a very cinematic way. Every day I’m with my kids, I’m cooking, I’m taking out the garbage, I’m feeding the dogs, I’m going out with my friends, I’m taking care of my mom, I’m tolerating my mom. I’m seeing the beauty around me, everywhere. I see it. I’m living in it, but I’m looking at everything.

You directed all ten episodes this season — your first directing credits aside from a couple of episodes in the show’s first season. What was it like to translate that movie in your head to the screen?

For me, it was easier this season to direct all the episodes. I could do it this way because everything flowed through me and I didn’t have to go through a committee — it was all part of my vision, and I was able to guide my actors. I know what I like in a frame. It just happened so organically, and it was fun. I’m able to conserve my energy. Every day at lunch, when we were shooting at my house, I would go into my character’s bedroom — the second [assistant director] would tape off the upstairs floor, and I would take my pants off and get in bed and fall asleep for twenty minutes. And it saved my life.

Sam spends a lot of time on the toilet. Why is that?

[Laughs] I don’t know! It’s up for interpretation, but I have toilet trauma, and I end up plunging my own toilet, like, three to five times a week. It’s a nightmare.

Better Things is obviously very much based on your life. What is the biggest difference between you and Sam?

She’s kind of me when I was younger. I used to have a little less of a filter, and I used to be more reactive. I used to get into fights with people a lot. And one day I swore off all of that. It was actually when I had my first daughter — somebody did a road rage incident on me and I’m like, “I’m a mom. I don’t need to do that.”

One of the most emotional elements of this show to me is the relationship between Sam and her mother, Phil. The scene in the season one finale when she backs out of their vacation plans was really crushing.

Oh, heartbreaking! I screamed at myself in the editing room every time. I’m like, “You asshole!”

Even though she obviously takes care of Phil, and we see how frustrating Phil can be, Sam’s attitude toward her mother is one of the few areas in the show where she’s cast in a negative light. Is that you working through some real-life stuff, or is it more a desire to foreground Phil’s struggles?

It’s derivative of a lot of things in my life, and information that I’ve gotten from my friends with their parents. I remember talking to a friend of mine and he said, “My mother, she’ll talk and talk and talk and talk and I want to drive myself into a wall.” But you know, we get more isolated as we get older, and there needs to be a community around us. My mom used to drive me crazy, and now I just adore her. She’s gotten more cantankerous since the show, and she just looks at me with a twinkle in her eye and she goes, “You love it because it gives you material.”

How has your mother reacted to this character?

I think she’s thrilled to be part of any conversation.

I love the way you depict women of a certain age who look like real people and are sexy in a very natural way. Was it important to you to show that sexiness doesn’t have to mean lacy lingerie and 25-year-olds with tight asses?

Yes! Yes! What do you think? Yes. Rebecca Metz [who plays Sam’s friend Tressa], I love her face so much — every time I’m with her I’m like, “Does your husband get down on his knees and is so grateful because you have the best face on the fucking planet?”

To what extent is Better Things a conscious antidote to the kind of gender roles you see on a traditional network sitcom — mom in the kitchen, dad at work, etc.?

I said this to my daughters the other day — I’m walking with my best friend and my two oldest daughters, and they’re all, like, frickin’ ADD. We’re in a mall and they’re yelling and I’m like, “Oh my god, I should have had boys!” Because I feel more like a man than I do like a lady. It’s just that kind of thing that’s in my DNA. I never really ascribed to gender things. It was really hard for me growing up. You know those pictures, in the Seventies, you’d pretend to be in an old-timey photo, and they’d put, like, a fake dress front on the woman and a dapper thing on the boy? I wanted to be the boy in the picture! And my brother got to be the boy, and in that picture my chin is quivering, I’m so upset. So now I get to control it.

Better Things airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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