Pamela Adlon wants you to know she has your back

Four seasons into FX's "Better Things," the show's creator and Emmy-nominated star has never been more invested in helping us cope with “things that are weird in the world.”
March 4, 2020, 5:30 PM UTC
Photographed by Maggie Shannon for Fortune

It’s a frigid-for-California Monday morning in early February, and Pamela Adlon has been rendered nearly speechless. Kind of.

“Okay, I’m done,” says Adlon. “What the fuck you wanna interview me for? She hid from fucking Nazis in a basement. What are you interviewing me for? Are you fucking kidding me?”

Seated inside Corbin Bowl, a bowling alley in L.A.’s Tarzana neighborhood, she’s just had a near-gutting conversation with an octogenarian bowler from Hungary named Georgie. On her way out, the latter announced to Adlon that she’s moving to Phoenix, that she survived cancer (which explains the wig, she says), and that she also once escaped certain death at the hands of Nazis.

Adlon is stunned, rapt, and totally in her element. She was also the first to converse with the senior sports club Georgie is part of—it meets every Monday morning and calls itself Fun Group—and it’s clear she couldn’t help but engage with them. The Emmy-winning voice actor (King of the Hill), and now writer-producer-director, was even more tickled when another of the eightysomething gals quipped: “You look familiar. Are you famous?”

Such a guileless exchange between common folk and an established Hollywood figure (Adlon’s been acting since she was a kid, appearing in such 1980s gems as Grease 2 and Say Anything), especially while being interviewed by a journalist inside a bowling alley in the San Fernando Valley, isn’t typical.

But moments like these are lifeblood for Adlon, 53, and in turn, her FX series, Better Things. From the first frame of her surrealist, semiautobiographical dramedy, which debuts its fourth season on March 5, Adlon was TV’s first devoted emotional anthropologist: someone who translates life’s most bewildering moments into narrative safe spaces for women, kids, and anyone, really, who might need to know that it’s totally okay to feel totally fucked up. In playing Sam Fox, who like her creator is an L.A. actress and single mother to three girls, Adlon has also transcended the “comedy about Hollywood” trope, creating in its place one that exploits the quiet crevices between plot points that most expose who we are, and, ideally for her, just how much we love each other.

In between subsequent Fun Group diversions, Adlon spoke to Fortune about Better Things’ (very rainy) fourth season, how it feels to be the series’ only director, her filmmaking aspirations, and why she’s most inspired by “unfinished shit.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

“My show…is a way for me to deal with things that are weird in the world,” says Adlon, who was born into a showbiz family: Her late father, writer-producer Don Segall, was a veteran of such classic sitcoms as “The Jeffersons” and “The Love Boat.”
Photographed by Maggie Shannon for Fortune

There’s little doubt about Sam’s state of mind in season four after she buys an El Camino, and declares, with a snake around her neck: “Welcome to my midlife crisis!”

Yeah, it’s pretty on the nose. [Laughs]

How much of this for you is about riffing on the midlife-crisis cliché? The idea that women aren’t allowed to indulge those feelings; that men get sports cars, and we get menopause?

That’s exactly right. When do we ever get to see a woman go through that? I’ve always wanted to get a fucking cool, old-school car. That’s why Sam’s like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna get an El Camino to replace my minivan.” I could never do that in real life, because I can’t fuck the environment up like that. But it’s fun to see Sam live out my fantasies. By the way, the real-life thing that inspired that episode was that my minivan got stolen from the Honda service department years ago. I was like, “Oh, that’s terrible. But please, don’t look for it!” Then they found it filled with porn and meth.  

It’s raining throughout this season. Was that an intentional narrative device, or were you simply at the mercy of shooting during a wet L.A. winter?

The end of 2017 was a really scary time. We had to evacuate twice because the wildfires were raging all around us. Then the next year all we had was rain, rain, rain, and rain. I felt like I’d conjured it in my heart, like I was the rainmaker! So day one in the writers’ room for this season I said to my team, “It’s raining, and it rains the whole season.” There was a lot of negotiation with my line producer and my first AD. [Laughs] I just really wanted to see L.A. in the rain. People think we’re made of sugar here and can’t fucking handle it. But for me it’s the best weather. So yeah…rain, forgiveness, couples, divorce—those were themes I put on boards I have at home and in the writers’ room for this season.

“One of my camera guys worked on Food Network shows, which is very helpful!” says Adlon of executing increasingly more frequent cooking sequences on “Better Things.” “I’ve always been motivated by chefs and kitchens. [Cooking] is a form of love that’s accepted no matter what.”
Suzanne Tenner—FX

Elaborate cooking sequences have also become a staple of the show. Is that a real-life respite for you?

It’s a big part of my personal life; it’s essentially occupational therapy for me. At home, I cook in silence. It’s a way for me to get anxiety out of my body because it’s purely a basic skill, kind of like blacksmithing. You put all your focus into it. I’ve been doing it for a long, long time, but I still feel like an amateur.

Really? You seem like such a pro.

It’s because my mom always did it, and I love reading cookbooks. I’ve always been motivated by chefs and kitchens. Cooking is also the easiest way to bring your family together and take care of everybody all at once. It’s a form of love that’s accepted no matter what, as opposed to “Let’s sit down and have a talk.” Ewww, no! Instead, “Here’s some fried chicken.”

This season marks more transition and growth for Sam’s daughters, including for her middle child, Frankie, played by Hannah Alligood, who begins to explore her sexuality. You’ve said you were the target of some criticism after season one for not addressing that Frankie was transgender, which many assumed she was based on her clothes. But you’ve said she isn’t. How did that feel?

Part of me resented the pressure to throw a label on a 12-year-old girl.

Adlon says her daughters have adjusted to seeing a version of their lives depicted by the “Better Things” actresses (from left): Mikey Madison (Max), Olivia Edward (Duke), and Hannah Alligood (Frankie).
Suzanne Tenner—FX

The idea that because this kid doesn’t present herself in a classically feminine way, she’s automatically male.

Yeah. When I was growing up, the word was “androgynous.” I was a tomboy. I wasn’t a cute, sexy tomboy. I really was a tomboy. And every role I played was like that. I even once played the girl who grows a penis! So it was massively important to me that one of the girls on the show be fluid, because that’s how it is at home with my own kids. Thank God I didn’t succumb to the pressure to change her. Why the fuck does she have to proclaim anything? She’s a child. So I said, “In season two, I’m not saying anything about it.”

“Growing up…I was a tomboy. I wasn’t a cute, sexy tomboy. I really was a tomboy,” notes Adlon, who says her looks led to typecasting early in her career, including the role of a young woman who grows male genitalia in the 1986 feature “Willy/Milly”(left) as well as a slew of “boyish” TV guest spots, such as a 1983 stint on NBC’s “The Facts of Life.”
Concorde/courtesy Everett Collection; Embassy Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection

Since then, Frankie’s gender expression has become just one element of who she is.

Exactly. She has quirks. OCD. By the way, one of my editors on the first three seasons was a trans woman. I told her, “I feel a lot of pressure for Frankie.” She’s like, “Fuck all of that.” I’ve also had three trans women actors in my show, but I’ve never “pointed” them out. So much of my show is “Show, don’t tell.” I’m never actually explaining anything.

Four seasons in, how often are you still pulling events from your life and recalibrating them for the screen?

Things happen, and I’ll write those on the board, too. For example, my daughter and I were in line at H&M, and this woman was frantically looking for her kid. We left the line to help her. Thankfully she found him, but when I got back in line I was like, “You motherfuckers, none of you even gave a shit!” So that’s a scene this season. Everything still has to have a shred of the truth. I learned that from my dad [the late screenwriter-producer Don Segall]. John Edward, the psychic medium, who is [on-screen daughter] Olivia Edward’s dad, talks about the “afterlife car wash.” It’s the idea that, when people die, the bad shit goes away. It’s kind of what I hope my show does; it’s a way for me to deal with things that are weird in the world.

Has it helped you better understand your relationship with your mother, Marina? Celia Imrie brilliantly plays a version of her on the show.

Completely. I used to be like, “Oh, my God, if she tells me the fucking story about calling Verizon one more time I’m gonna drive my car into a brick wall.” Then one day I just looked at her, and I was like, “Ohhh, this is funny.

In January, Adlon—seen here with two of her daughters, Odessa and Gideon Adlon, and her mother Marina Segall—announced on social media that she’d become a dual citizen of the U.S. and the U.K.
Courtesy of Pamela Adlon via Instagram

Have your kids adjusted to seeing a version of their lives depicted on-screen?

The lines get blurred for them. Now they’ll claim things in the show happened to them, and I’m like, “No that’s from my middle school experience.” [Laughs] When I showed my daughters the first three episodes of this season, Gideon, my oldest, cried through all of them. I think they’re incredibly proud of their mom. And Gideon and Odessa are superambitious, too. They wanted to get into Hollywood, and they’re succeeding.

How much have you had to quell feelings of protectiveness for them because you know how incredibly difficult it can be for young female actors?

I think now it’s more about acceptance. Also, it’s shocking how different the business is today from when I was coming up. Producers would make me feel really bad about the way I looked. But if someone is told they have a physical shortcoming now, it’s essentially against the law. Also [actress] Meredith Salenger and I were talking a few months ago about how much kids are able to work now. I mean, there are 600 scripted fucking television shows!

That certainly wasn’t the case in the early 1980s when you and Meredith were starting out. It was Grease 2 and The Journey of Natty Gann.

[Laughs] Exactly. There were 15 projects. But I’ve always said that my show is a voice for my kids and their friends. By telling their stories, they’re being seen and heard. The carefully curated moments, support from my network—it’s all enabled me to make this crazy fucking thing. I mean…what is this show? How would you describe it?

For me, it’s a show about feeling comforted.

Yes! It’s comforting. Awful, uncomfortable situations happen, but people can say, “Thank God that’s not me” or “I wish I’d done that.”

Divorce, as you’ve mentioned, is a constant theme in the series. If your own divorce hadn’t happened 10 years ago, would you still have made a show about your life?

I wouldn’t give it that much power—that’d be selling myself short. I don’t even remember when there was another person in my life. I just think I’ve always had this drive inside of me. My dad was always fighting against doors closing in his face. And when he turned 50, everything stopped for him. The irony isn’t lost on me that everything opened up when I turned 50. The world is so different now.

In a lot of ways the show is a conduit for exploring, and sometimes mourning, expectations for life that have gone unmet.

Isn’t that interesting? And I’m the person who has three children telling a story about how having children isn’t enough. It’s not everything. If we don’t put time into ourselves, we’re doing our kids a huge disservice. And they’re gonna be gone in two seconds. My baby is about to turn 17!

As the series’ only director since season two, how free are you now to indulge every instinct you have?

It’s funny, when FX got the first cut of this season’s first episode, one of the notes was “You know it’s four and a half minutes before anybody speaks, right?” I’m like, “Yeah!” [Laughs] It’s gotten exponentially easier each year to translate to them what I’m trying to do. Now they’re like, “I saw it on the page, but when you did it, it became an entirely different thing.” They trust me.

“After season two, people would ask me, ‘Will Sam ever get back together with Henry Thomas’s character, Robin?’ says Adlon. “I was like, ‘Wow. It’s really not okay for a woman to be on her own.’ Everyone’s always trying to fix her.”
Photographed by Maggie Shannon for Fortune

Is making features the next step for you?

I’ve actually just optioned a memoir that a high school friend of mine wrote. I’m really excited. But I feel like I already make movies! There’s an episode this season that’s like three features in one. It’s fucking nuts. The hardest part for me is always chopping them down, because I want them to breathe.

Who are your filmmaking heroes?

John Cassavetes. The dialogue, the camera movement…it’s all so raw, scary, and uncomfortable. The line in Love Streams when Cassavetes says, “Dirty dishes in the sink make me wanna throw up.” Come on! And Bob Fosse…just look at the opening of All That Jazz. It’s the greatest thing ever.

Like the work of those filmmakers, Better Things similarly combines elements of reality and fantasy. For example, Sam was visited by her father’s ghost in season three.

Yeah. My script supervisor calls it “magical realism.” She gives me so much shit.

There’s a scene this season where Diedrich Bader’s character, Rich, who is gay, is in bed with Sam, and she’s consoling him while he sobs over a breakup. It’s one of the more beautiful depictions of intimacy and love I’ve seen on-screen in a long time.

Right? They’re the hottest couple on TV. Who needs sex? [Laughs]

Maybe that’s what the show is about? Love? Love for your kids, your friends, your work, but most important, for yourself?

Yes! That’s exactly what the whole thing is about for me. It’s funny, after season two, people would ask me, “Will Sam ever get back together with Henry Thomas’s character, Robin?” I was like,“Wow. It’s really not okay for a woman to be on her own.” Everyone’s always trying to fix her.

“I feel like I already make movies,” says Adlon (pictured on set with “Better Things” actress Olivia Edward) of her big-screen directing aspirations, which in the near future include adapting a friend’s memoir. “The hardest part for me is always chopping [episodes] down, because I want them to breathe.”
Suzanne Tenner—FX

And everything about the show suggests that you rail against resolution of any kind.

I’m so happy you said that, because it’s massively important to me. It’s excruciatingly detail-oriented work I’m doing. Not having a payoff in each episode is so much harder. And it’s taken years of training my network, actors, everybody that it’s okay! It’s an act of love to not distort somebody’s feelings about what they’re seeing. People have finally stopped asking me why Sam and the girls always touch the statue at the top of their stairs. It’s whatever you want it to be. I think unfinished shit gives people hope.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How the Beach Boys became two separate, warring factions
Emma. star and director on updating Jane Austen’s text through blood and tears
—No, A.I. isn’t deciding which movies to green-light
Breaking Bad ended six years ago—but Better Call Saul and merchandise keep gaining steam
Contagion writer, scientific adviser reflect on film’s newfound relevance amid coronavirus crisis
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.