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Pamela Adlon on Making ‘Better’ Television

Better Things on FX
Pamela Adlon as Sam in FX’s ‘Better Things.’ (Image credit: FX)

FX comedy Better Things is preparing its series finale as season five winds down. Pamela Adlon stars as Sam Fox, a single mother of three daughters. She’s also showrunner and executive producer, and has directed every episode from season two onwards.

If the critics are any kind of judge, Adlon does all those jobs quite well. Better Things has a stunning 98% score on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer. 

Season five began in late February and The Better Things finale is on April 25. Celia Imrie, Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley and Olivia Edward are also in the cast. 

Adlon spoke with B+C about her extraordinary workload on Better Things, what’s next for her, and what kind of legacy the show might leave behind. An edited transcript follows. 

B+C: Tell me about the stress, the fatigue of starring, producing and directing a show.

Pamela Adlon: And writing and showrunning?

B+C: And writing and showrunning. 

PA: And being a single mom of three? And taking care of my 84-year-old mom?

B+C: All that. What's that like?

PA: It’s a privilege. It really is. Women are multitaskers by nature. People would ask me early on, ‘What’s that like?‘ And what I would say is, ‘I’m there anyway, I’m in it, so I might as well do these other things.’ And, as one of my friends said the other day, ‘You really like to be in control. You need to control.’ 

It’s weird to say, but it was almost like a break for me because my life was so … It feels out of control when you are a single parent, and so much is out of your control. So it was very centering for me [to run Better Things], which took the exhaustion away from it. 

I think the biggest challenge was being away from my kids when I was in production when they were so much younger.

It feels out of control when you are a single parent, and so much is out of your control. So it was very centering for me [to run ‘Better Things’], which took the exhaustion away from it.”

— Pamela Adlon

B+C: Would you have that many roles on another project? It doesn’t sound like you’d back away from that kind of challenge next time around. 

PA: No, I don’t think I would. But for me, it was about the collaboration with my network that made it work. I don’t know that anybody else would have given me that grace, and that’s a huge part of it. Just them being accepting and allowing me to do the show the way I wanted to.

B+C: Do you see yourself doing another TV show?

PA: Oh yeah. I love making television.

B+C: What sort of show do you have in mind?

PA: I’ve got several things in development, developing other people and stuff like that. I like all genres. I guess I would be least interested in doing a show about a single mom of three girls.

B+C: Obviously, you’re not going to say much about the Better Things finale, but tease me a little — what can you say about it?

PA: What can I say about the finale? Well, I want to leave people feeling hopeful and kind of give a reflection of the series and all of the characters as a whole. It’s a nod to the fact that I didn’t wrap things up with a bow a lot, or ever, in the first few seasons, just letting you figure it out. It’s like a goody bag of my show: Thank you for coming, thank you for being with us for five seasons. Here’s your goody bag.

B+C: Are you studying other series finales and seeing how they dismount?

PA: No, but that would've been a good idea, Mike. That's so funny. Stupid, stupid, stupid! People asked me, when I did King of the Hill, ‘Well, what was it like being a 12-year-old boy from Texas?’ And the day that I went to that audition, they handed me the sides and they said, ‘You’re a 12-year-old boy from Texas.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, shit. I should have watched [1973 film] Badlands last night. Something to prepare.’

B+C: Do you have another series finale that you just love, where you think they just absolutely nailed it?

PA: If I think about a finale, I think about Six Feet Under. I loved it so much. It makes me want to watch the whole series again, just to see the finale.

B+C: What are you watching for fun these days?

PA: Succession. I love Succession. I love that shit. I'm waiting for that second part of Ozark’s finale season. I'm excited for Killing Eve. I'm excited to see Abbott Elementary

B+C: The current season of Better Things has a number of references to Ukraine. How did that come to be?

PA: In the first episode, Sam and Marion go to this genealogy guy, which is based on the Finding Your Roots [episode] that I did. I found out that my people on my father's side are from Ukraine and I didn't know that. So I put it in the show, and then all of a sudden …

We came before this madness that’s happening. But it was not lost on us. We were like, ‘This is crazy.’ I mean, when we were shooting, this was last year, and so now it‘s kind of unbelievable. ■

Part 2

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.