Pamela Adlon and her alter ego Sam Fox, who is manifested through her FX comedy Better Things, is the mouthy, tough-love mom we all need in our lives—whether we want her or not.
During the first season of the series, actress and divorced mother-of-three Sam quite literally spoke for pretty much all of Better Things’ viewers: all the caretakers, the single parents, and the underappreciated employees who were sick of cleaning up other peoples’ bullshit.
In those episodes, Sam lectured her best friend’s lazy husband that he took that relationship for granted even though she knew he was too plastered to heed her warning. She also stopped her car to call out her eldest daughter for her tantruming prima donna teen nonsense. And, in one of my favorite moments on television that year, she delivered an impromptu pep talk to her younger daughters’ empowerment group about persevering through the cold and unjust burden that is menstruation. And, during all of this, Sam manages to freely and casually date, day drink with her mom, get fired from an acting job while in full-on alien prosthetic, and worry what the repercussions will be when her daughters see she’s filmed a scene where a veteran actor (played by, naturally, veteran actor Bradley Whitford) is supposed to go down on her.
Whatever it is, Sam handles it. Except, like everyone else who is swimming upstream in life, she sometimes handles it badly. No wonder all of this resulted in a lead actress in a comedy Emmy nomination for Adlon and a Peabody Award for the show.
But in the opening scene of the comedy’s second season, which premieres September 14, it isn’t Sam’s crackling, hoydenish voice that gets our attention so much as it is her silence. Exhausted and baggy-eyed, Sam stares blankly forward in a daze that makes me feel exhausted. In a few moments, this look will immediately invoke commiseration from anyone who has ever become overextended. It expresses the following:
Why. The. Fuck. Did. I. Throw. This. Damned. Party.
But, this is not a time for self pity. At the moment, there’s nothing Sam can do but get off that toilet she’s sitting on, use the plunger to fix its clog and pull up her pants (in that order) because those lamb sliders and two types of paella she made to feed her house full of guests need to get eaten.
Sam is a mom; a confidant and a people pleaser and a protector and a hard truth advocate. And, as the blurry lines between fact and fiction have a habit of doing, so it seems is Adlon herself.
“It’s an amazing gift to be able to make my show and have a deep connection to it,” Adlon tells Complex and other reporters during a visit to the one of the second season’s suburban Los Angeles sets after ensuring we are all properly shaded from the elements one scorching hot day in May. “You’re not just working on a show. It’s not just a show; it’s more than that. It means so much. I like people having a strong reaction.”
She name-checks other series she’s worked on that she thinks have also done this: Showtime’s Californication or Fox’s King of the Hill, which garnered her her first Emmy win. Or Louie, Louis C.K.’s semi-autobiographical FX dramedy where she also served as a writer (C.K. also co-created Better Things).
“Every show is great; every job is great, but to have a show that cuts people deep? …,” she says.
The reason for this trailing off is probably two-fold. One is that Adlon was running on fumes the day of our visit because she was in the middle of directing the new season’s fifth episode (a half-way point that can only really be measured in hours of lost sleep and fully appreciated when taking into account that she directed all 10 episodes of Season 2 and also co-wrote many of them with C.K.).
The other is that this is how Adlon feels families naturally behave and, presumably as a result, is therefore how her show’s stories are told.
“When you’re having things between each other, there’s so much history between your family that you don’t even need to explain or give the exposition,” says Adlon, a former child actress known for appearing in The Facts of Life and (because I will never tire of mentioning this) Grease 2. “That’s a world that I came from. Growing up in ‘80s television or ‘90s television, I would be like the character that was it was a tool to tell you what’s going on instead of the audience discovering it.”
Case and point: Last season’s finale ended with the cliffhanger that middle child Frankie may be questioning her gender identification. That’s a plot that, surprisingly, doesn’t get as much focus in the early episodes of the new season.
Hannah Alligood, who plays the middle schooler, says this checks out because, frankly, “she’s at this age and stage in life [where] everything’s a lot heavier [and] you have a more intense emotional reaction to everything.” Besides, Alligood adds, “everybody has this different idea and no one really knows what’s going on with Frankie.” Adlon says she was not trying to make a social statement with this story arc, even if that episode did air as the Internet was exploding with headlines about states’ transgender bathroom bills. Rather, she says, this “just is who she is and we’re not making any comment on it right now.”
“There were a lot of things that were happening in my life and around me that made that very relevant,” Adlon says of this plotline. As an actual mother of actual daughters, she says she sees the idea of gender fluidity popping up in her kids’ peer groups. And some parents, just as Sam was, may not be able to immediately see it no matter how forward-thinking and involved they think they are.
That the first season’s finale aired a couple days after the 2016 presidential election did not go unnoticed by fans.
“It’s so funny because a lot of people were like I needed that,” says Adlon, who frequently receives feedback from crew members and fans in the Twittersphere about the show’s impact on them (a phone interview we had after this press day went on much longer than expected when we bonded over the awesomeness that was the aforementioned period monologue).
“I was just telling this story and it was like people want yummy, heartfelt things,” Adlon says. “And I was trying to make an edgy, uncomfortable show. But people are responding to that because there’s so much heart and flaws and failures and exhaustion.”
This juxtaposition is also both a fixture in C.K.’s work and seemingly represented in their professional relationship. Comedian Tig Notaro has been publicly critical of C.K. for both his involvement in a Saturday Night Live sketch that seemingly plagiarizes her work and for not commenting on the sexual misconduct rumors against him. (C.K. recently told The New York Times that he won’t discuss the rumors because that legitimizes them). More directly related to this story: She also insists that he has nothing to do with her Amazon series, One Mississippi, despite his holding an executive producer credit. Meanwhile, Adlon seems to get along with him great and even offers an anecdote that suggests they keep things pretty chill.
“Yesterday, I needed to switch out [a line because] I say ‘fuck you’ twice. So I texted him and said what do I do? I want to replace ‘fuck you; fuck you.’ He said, OK the first one is ‘shut the fuck up’ and the second one is ‘you’re an asshole,’” she says as an example. (C.K. shared his admiration for her during the show’s Television Critics Association panel in August, saying “because of how long she’s been in television and movies, she has observed so well and has an amazing vocabulary for getting ideas across” and that “she’s one of these people who takes your phone and makes a beautiful image”).
This vibe is also what helps Better Things to tell a story of a multi-generational family while not being overtly saccharin. Adlon has spoken about her show’s ability to give a voice to young women. And, conversely, she appreciates that Millennials and Gen-Zers get to see what a real-life, middle-aged woman looks like through her. “I like to go to restaurants where people are 70 and 12 and 25,” she says. “That’s the world I live in. I live in in an inclusive world. My parties have all ages and that kind of thing.”
She says she was “in heaven” filming the scene we saw, which focused on her character’s relationship with her mother, Phyllis, a British-born busy buddy with a knack for getting under the skin of her jaded, world-weary daughter. Actress Celia Imrie, who plays that role, says she appreciates the honesty of this relationship because “we can be quite rude to each other” and that it’s an “absolute delight for me to be totally un-PC.”
For Adlon, she finds this experience cathartic. In fact, several key moments of the second season explore this dynamic.
“I spend a lot of time with my real mother,” she says. “She drives me fucking crazy, but I have an outlet to enjoy it and I’ve turned garbage into gold. This is what I’d recommend: If your mother drives you crazy, just make a fucking TV show and then you have reams of material.”