Looking for a Silver Lining With Better Things’ Pamela Adlon

Photo: Pamela Littky/FX

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Pamela Adlon is not Sam Fox, the actor and single mom she plays on Better Things, a series she also co-created, co-wrote, and directs for FX. But the two share many things in common, including three daughters, a British mother who lives nearby, and a view of life rooted in a mix of realism and optimism.

That perspective is louder and clearer than ever in the fifth and final season of Better Things, airing Mondays on FX and hitting Hulu the following day. As Adlon explained in a recent conversation over Zoom from her L.A. home (which, for the record, looks remarkably similar to Sam’s house), the last run of episodes was inspired by many of the feelings and experiences that came up during the pandemic, even though the series never explicitly references COVID. “It’s in the fabric of the stories of the show,” she says. “The themes for me were back to basics.”

There is an emphasis on the importance of human connection — and how frustrating other people can be — which has always been central to Better Things. But this season, Sam seems more reflective, more reverent of her past, and more determined to seek the silver linings tucked inside clouds. There’s a story line about family roots that is addressed in part via a Fox-family trip to England, an episode inspired by the need to film Better Things in the U.K. so Celia Imrie, who plays Sam’s mother, Phil, could feature properly in the episodes. (COVID made it impossible for her to fly to California.) It was an adjustment for a series that has always been about accommodating life’s unexpected surprises and rolling with them, something Adlon is used to doing, as this conversation makes clear.

I was so delighted by the joke you make in the first episode, that you also come back to later, when you get “Okay, boomer”–ed. You’re like, “Do not call me a boomer.” Have your kids done that to you?
Oh yeah. I came into the writers’ room like, “We have to have ‘Okay, boomer,’ because this is something.” And one of my writers, Joe Hortua, said, “My kids do that to me all the time.”

It’s a very dismissive thing to say in general, but when you say it to a Gen-Xer, it ignores our existence, which everybody already does. It works on two levels as an insult.
I don’t know why it matters, but it really matters. My brother’s a boomer, and we are of a different time.

It got me thinking about how Better Things is a portrait of a Gen-Xer in ways I hadn’t thought about before. I have some reasons, but I want to hear whether you agree.
I worked really hard to make it an international show, a show that’s not just about a mom. It’s about men and women and everything in between. But I suppose it is a really good example. We first heard this term sandwich generation in regard to us. I guess I would agree with that.

There’s been so much conversation since And Just Like That … came out about how 50-something women are represented on television. Better Things has been doing that for five seasons in a way that’s realistic but also not a downer.
There’s so much scorched earth from our generation growing up during the Cold War and being obsessed with Russia pointing nukes at us. All these things seemed really, really scary when I was in middle school. They left this crazy feeling inside.

A few years ago, when things started to get really bad in the way they are now, I thought, Are we going to stop living? Are we going to be apologizing to our kids? We’re all still living our lives, and we have to. It’s a very existential feeling I put into the show: We’re here. We have our chosen family and our village and our friends, and we have work. Things can get really fucking bleak, and you’re allowed to laugh. You have to laugh. The kids need reasons to keep moving forward.

You made the decision not to bring the pandemic into this season of Better Things. Was that for some of the reasons you just mentioned?
It’s in the fabric of the stories of the show this season. Baseball cards: I put that in the show because I was sitting at home in lockdown, de-hoarding the way Phil is this season. I laid them out on my dining table for a week, then I wrapped them up in hair bands by position and team. It was one of those things I never would have been able to get to if we were continuing to go as quickly as we were. I was hoping the pandemic would show us we were going too fast: This is a reset. Let’s not go back to normal. We need to change and be better.

The themes for me were back to basics: Everybody was making fucking sourdough starter, we were going on walks and reconnecting, and there were birthday parades — these little moments. We did a birthday parade for one of my daughters, then one of my friend’s daughters. Those moments where you came up on the line and handed a present to somebody through the window and were able to see them — the connection was so profoundly moving. That’s always been a part of the show. I guess I just doubled down on it.

That’s one of the things I love about the show: You’ve always been able to capture the organic nature of people relating to each other.
The guy on the Mattachine Steps [in episode five] is a perfect example. Sam’s tackling the steps, and she sees this man crying. She doesn’t know what to do, so she just sits with him. Then, after Sam says, “This is a monument to gayness. It’s like the Stonewall of L.A.,” an entitled woman walks through like, “Excuse me.” And they just burst into laughter.

That, for me, is addressing the pandemic. Lennon Parham plays the receptionist at my doctor’s office: She’s entitled, and she’s got all this power and makes people feel shitty. When you go to a doctor, you’re at your most vulnerable. There’s usually one person at the desk who’s got all the power, and they make you feel really bad. Those are my little gestures to the time we’ve been living in: People being really poorly behaved and so narcissistic that they don’t care about the consequences of their actions. Through Sam’s eyes, we’re seeing how this ugliness lives in the world. If you can laugh at it, it makes it less awful.

Were you always planning to send Sam’s family to England, or did that come purely out of necessity?
It was always, We have to go to England to get Celia’s scenes. When I found out we were going to be able to re-create her L.A. house in England, it was a trade-off. My production designer, Kitty Doris-Bates, was an enormous presence for me, and I was able to build the stories from there. But I didn’t want it to be indulgent, like, The Fox family goes to England, and we’re at Big Ben. I wanted it to have substance.

The set rebuild of Phil’s house was very seamless.
Celia felt very privileged. She couldn’t believe we all came there. I was tunnel vision: I wanted to get to Celia and complete the story of this season. We wrapped at the British Consulate in England — that was the final scene we shot — and we were just gasping for air, like, We’re done now. We never got shut down once, which is crazy.

Another theme this season is Sam not being as integral to her daughters’ daily lives. She goes to see Frankie at the grocery store where she works, and Frankie’s waving her off. Sam has to back away and stay out of the store. What were you trying to convey with those scenes?
The whole show was built around this character who’s trying to have some time for herself while raising these kids. It’s like you live for your kids to start calling you Mom or Mama and then they say it over and over and you’re like, Please stop saying Mom. Give me a second. Then you get to a point where you’re like, Wait, I want somebody to ask for me. When I started the show, all of my kids were home and living under the same roof, and now two of them are gone. In England, I texted my daughters, and I said, “I dreamt that you guys were babies again.”

When Angela Kinsey’s character in the premiere episode says “I had a life,” she left home — she went to Indonesia. But she’s looking at her son who’s about to go to college, and she goes, I can’t imagine my life without him. That’s the realization that, as parents, you can’t stop your life for your kids. You need to keep moving forward. Your kids are on loan to you. They don’t belong to you; you’re raising them to launch. Seeing somebody else besides Sam do that is what I love. When you see a character you’ve never seen before make this realization — that’s for the audience who watched this show to sit there and go, Oh my God, I did have a life, too.

There were so many years where my dinner was the rest of the food on their plate. That can’t be your whole future. You’re not just eating the fucking rest of the mac and cheese they left on your plate. You’ve got to plan for your future as well as helping guide your kids to theirs.

As Sam says in the finale, “The meanest thing your kids can do is grow up.” It’s very true.
Yes. And people get to experience that in the show when they see how grown up Olivia [Edward] got. The binge-watchers, I can’t even imagine how that is for them: to see Olivia as this little tiny baby to the way she looks now. When they grow up, you’re just sitting there going, Oh my God. Then that scary empty-nest feeling: You look around and go, Wait, am I going to live here forever just because I’m waiting for kids to come home and visit? Do I keep shrines to their rooms, or do I do something for myself? It’s a lot of questions nobody really talks about.

Nobody talks about the aging thing, like when the women did the menopause secret testimonials last year. I didn’t have anything like that. At a certain point, the spotlight’s back on you. What are you going to do?

Sam is a very progressive and welcoming person, but she’s having problems with “they/them” pronouns this season. She makes some jokes, but you can tell she’s taking it seriously. I have friends for whom it’s hard to get used to saying “they,” even though they really want to. I screw it up sometimes, too. It was interesting to see someone put that on television and acknowledge that struggle: I’m trying to change my brain, and I can’t figure out how.
When you see the hero of the show being clumsy about it and not really knowing what to do and making fun of it and then realizing, This is really a thing. Okay, give me a minute — people are very resistant to that kind of change. The thing about this season is you adapt or die. We had to adapt in terms of the shutdown and the pandemic. It’s about not being resistant to change.

I really appreciated Frankie saying to Sam, “This is not about you.”

I don’t know if it’s possible for anybody who is resistant to change to watch this show and then change, but I hope some people do. Or at least think about it.
I dearly hope so. I had this opportunity with the show, too — I think it’s season three when Sam comes home after she was on a plane that was on fire. There’s kids at the house, and Frankie’s like, “I’ve got to read this play.” Sam’s like, “How much did you read?” And she’s like, “None of it.” Sam’s exhausted. She was on a fucking plane that had to make an emergency landing. Then she says, “Okay, how about this? I’ll read a chapter and then you read a chapter.” And they start reading A Raisin in the Sun.

I remember gathering the whole crew in the house one day to show them a rough cut of that episode. Celia came up to me after and said, “You know what, mate? I wish I had done that with Angs” — her son, Angus. “That would’ve gotten us through so many things.” When I was a new mom, I would have encounters with other moms at school, moms I would call “robot moms.” Everything was perfect, and I would be like, I wonder what that bitch is putting in her kid’s lunch box. How is she on every committee? And they wouldn’t share with you.

I feel like the greatest gift, particularly for women, is to share with each other: their experiences (the bad things that have happened, good things that have happened), tricks, tips — all of that stuff. If women hold on to that and selfishly want it for themselves, we’re all missing out. I put that stuff in my show because I wish I had known about it.

Looking for a Silver Lining With Better Things’ Pamela Adlon