Pamela Adlon Looks on the Bright Side of Better Things’ End

Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

We at Vulture have been huge fans of Better Things since the very beginning — when it debuted in 2016. Our admiration for the series, co-created and ultimately shaped by the singular vision of its star Pamela Adlon, has never wavered. Over five seasons, this dramedy explored single motherhood, caregiving, aging, and the struggle to continue an acting career in middle age with great attention to detail, deep humanity, and a full embrace of the unpredictable, beautiful chaos of daily life. Even if you weren’t a single mom, or an actor, or someone who lives across the street from their own mother, there were moments in every episode that could make anyone feel seen.

It’s fitting that the final episode of the series, which aired on FX on Monday night and can be streamed now on Hulu, closed with a musical sequence that broke the fourth wall and, quite literally, made it feel as though the characters in the show could actually see us watching. In this second part of a long conversation with Adlon about the close of Better Things, she talked about why she chose to end the show by having her cast sing a Monty Python song to the camera, the origin story behind the music video that opened the finale, and how it feels to end a series that is so deeply autobiographical.

Rather than feeling sad because it’s over, Adlon seems grateful that all five of those seasons happened. “I’m sitting in this place — that I will cherish it,” she told me. So will we and anyone else who went on the Better Things journey with her.

I’m curious about the song that Duke sings in the finale. Where did that come from?
In the world of the show, Duke wrote it. It’s Duke’s. Sam directs Duke doing the video, and that’s Duke’s win. But a guy named Gideon Irving did the original song and video with his friends Rocky and Yuan. At the end, when we’re high-fiving, Gideon, Rocky, and Yuan are all there.

My friend Heather — she used to cut my hair, and we were at the salon one day. We would always show each other stuff that we love. She showed me the “Tilted” video. It ran over and over in my head, and I knew I wanted to do that in the show. So I thought, Sam, Phil, and the girls are going to do “Tilted” in the show. It was the same with “Woke Up Looking”; I knew I wanted to do it in the show. It was the perfect win moment for Duke.

There are a couple of lines that keep coming up this season. One is “I have arms because of you.” Sam says that a couple of times in her mom’s presence, then she says it in a more declarative, appreciative way in the finale. Where did that line come from? 
You find out in the episode in England. Sam is wasted after she just fell down the stairs. Phil laughs at her and says, “I didn’t want to take the thalidomides that the doctors were giving out like candy.”

When I was born, in the ’60s, they were giving that to moms for morning sickness. I would go to the park in New York City, and there would be kids without arms — their hands grew out of their shoulders. It didn’t dawn on me until many years later. There was a People magazine cover story about children of thalidomide. And it hit me: Oh my God! This woman who drives me fucking crazy — she refused to take that to feel better when she was pregnant with me. She was sick all nine months with my older brother. She didn’t take it with him. You would think she would say, “Give me the thalidomide.” She didn’t. So when I want to drive my car into a brick wall because my mother’s doing something weird, I remember that I have arms because of her.

You’re talking about you, Pamela.

And then you put that in the show.
Yeah. In the finale scene, when Caroline comes in and she’s like, “Your mother. I can’t be around her,” we both talk about our moms and how that’s what kept their families going. And Sam says to Caroline, “Well, did you like anything about your mom?” And she’s like, “Well, she supported the whole family” and all of this other stuff that you find out.

It explains why Caroline is annoyed with Phil. In another show, you would never find that out. You would just think, That’s the bitchy character.
That’s right.

I wanted to ask about your decision to end the show with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” which is a bookend to the Monty Python song in the premiere.
“Galaxy Song.”

To completely break the fourth wall in the way that you did — was that something you had in mind for a while?
I couldn’t believe that we got those cues. I was like, “Does anybody know Eric Idle? He lives in Studio City. I’ve seen him walk around. Can you get to him?” “Wait, he’s friends with my client.” So I wrote him this long letter, and I made a musical sizzle reel for him.

I wanted to start with the “Galaxy Song,” because the first words you hear are Eric Idle saying, “Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, and things seem hard or tough.” He’s talking about the enormity of the universe and how tiny and insignificant we seem but what a miracle it is that we’re here. Then wrapping up with “Always Look on the Bright Side” — “When you look at it, life’s a laugh and death’s a joke. It’s true.” They went hand in hand for me.

You could have used the song in a montage as opposed to having everybody sing it to the camera. Why did you feel that was important? 
Connection. I wanted to see the connection. I wanted to give that to people. Of course, everything’s an experiment, and I don’t know how people are going to respond or anything. But I’ve used footage sometimes where somebody speaks to the camera or does something that you’re like, “Wait, did I just see that?” It feels like you are in there, like they’re looking at you. You’re part of it. You know? That was always a big part of the show — that people feel this kinetic kind of visceral connection to the things that are going on. So we just had people look right at viewers and draw them in further — hopefully. It’s almost like you could step onto the set, like you are a part of it. People want to be in this universe, and they are in this universe.

Cutting that with my editor Annie Eifrig, we lose our shit every time. We’ve seen it 1,000 times. And we just go [gasps]. She had an enormous amount of footage to go through. Whenever I could get somebody to come and do the song, it was always like, “Well, you’re going to have to pay them for two episodes.” And I’m like, “I don’t care. I just need to have this.” I was driven, and we didn’t know how it was going to turn out. But it just really — it gets me. It gets me and Annie. We hope that everybody else feels what we feel. When that whole table, the village, looks up and says, “I love you” — that kills me. It’s the hug. We’re just going, “We’re all in this fucking thing together.” It’s cheesy, but I love it.

I didn’t think it was cheesy; I felt exactly what you’re describing.
What are you working on now?
I mean, I’ve been working on Better Things season five. I guess I started thinking about it in January. I want to make more television. I really do. And I want to do features. I want to do plays.

I can’t imagine what it feels like for you to not be working on Better Things anymore. It’ll be hard for me to not be able to watch it anymore. 
Maybe I’m in denial. Because everybody’s asking me. They’re like, “Aren’t you sad?” And I’m like, “No.” “Aren’t you going to miss it?” “No.” I’m sitting in this place — that I will cherish it. And it is what it is. I love it so much, but that’s out in the world now, and it’s a good time to move on. Just like with my kids and the way the world has turned. I just feel excited.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Pamela Adlon Looks on the Bright Side of Better Things’ End