Pamela Adlon Is Not Quite Herself (But Close) in FX's 'Better Things'
"I feel like everything is funny in life, in my life, and there is a lot of funny in the darkness," says Better Things," a semi-autobiographical, seriocomic take on her life as a single mother and actress working in the Hollywood trenches in Los Angeles. "I like things that just feel real, and I don't like anything that's dark without a heart ... I just feel like there's really no category for this kind of thing. It's not comedy or dramedy. It's like 'The Incredible Feelings Show.'"
Adlon, of course, has much real life experience to draw from: the daughter of "Today Show" producer / pulp fiction writer / erotic novel author Don Segall and British-born mother Marina, early on she enjoyed a prolific career as a child actress. When on-camera opportunities eventually became harder to land, she forged a second career as a voice actress in animation and video games, as often as not lending her scratchy tones to young boy characters (she's most famously known for her Emmy-winning turn as Bobby Hill on "King of the Hill") -- work that paid the bills as she raised three young daughters on her own.
"That's my survival," she reflects, having included a both funny and poignant nod to her vocation in the pilot episode." I'm in the booth all the time doing obscure shows that I don't even understand what they are ... and thank God, because they sustained me."
A decade ago, she was suddenly a fierce, funny presence on television again, most notably on the short-lived HBO sitcom "Lucky Louie," which paired her for the first time with comedian Californication," playing the amusingly foul-mouthed Marcy Runkle. She would later re-team with C.K. on his acclaimed, artfully crafted series "Louie," both as an actress and as a writer/producer.
Their professional rapport and often speculated about personal relationship, as well as their fruitful partnership with the FX network, led to the creation of her new series, which C.K. co-created and executive produces -- he also directed the pilot episode. While it dispenses with some of "Louie's" more surreal and whimsical flights of fancies, "Better Things" exists in a similar space mining both darkness and light to excellent, insightful effect, and a warmer afterglow.
"When I was first coming up with the idea for the show, it was really hard for me," Adlon admits, revealing that she had to find her way into her own personal stories. "I was blocked, and I was talking to Louis about it. I could come up with ideas for him all the day long, and then when it came to me, I stopped ... but I always knew that telling a story about girls at three different stages developmentally was very interesting to me."
Eventually, she found a take on her own life that she was comfortable with. "I'm very aware of things that would be too personal, and my daughters know that I wouldn't co‑op their lives, but my dad would always say, 'Write what you know,'" she says, taking pains to find a balance between truthful comedy and invasiveness. "I don't walk into a room and go, 'Wait – hang on! I've got to go write what just happened.' Although I do that with my mother: she walks into the kitchen, and I just get out a pen, and I go, 'Go!' Because I know it's just going to be material for me right now. And then I don't get quite so irritated – I'm like, "Oh, this is going to be good. Okay, tell me about the Neighborhood Watch meeting, Mom. Let's go.'"
Mom, as it turns out, is totally fine with that. "She watched one episode, and she said, 'I know why you put that in,'" Adlon chuckles. "I was like, 'All right, yeah.' I just feel like the material is elevating. I feel like there's something that everybody can relate to, and I don't feel like anybody's particularly going to get hurt."
Executive producer Blair Breard, who worked with Adlon on "Louie," says the on-screen alter ego Sam Fox "is her but it's not her -- it's a version of her ... She's a veteran actor. She really knows what she's doing. I wanted to see her take one step aside so that it wasn't exactly her, because it's probably less taxing than if it was exactly like her. So I think the stories that she's told in the writing have given her the framework within which to step outside of herself a little bit, which as a creative work of fiction, is I think the right choice to have made."
"Watching her create this show every day, on set every day, was such a joy because it just seemed as if she couldn't help herself," says Breard. "It just was coming out of her. She could barely stop choosing the moments and pushing this way and that way and crafting everything. I think that the work she's been doing as an actor for years and years and year and the writing that she's done just led her to this moment naturally, and it just was flowing out of her. You couldn't have stopped her if you wanted to."
The show business day job angle, a staple of TV comedies from "The Dick Van Dyke Show" to "Seinfeld" to "Louie," doesn't dominate the proceedings. "It's not the main part of what we're seeing in the show -- it's what she does, but it's sort of not exactly who she is," says Breard. "We see so much of her life, her relationships with her kids, her relationship with her friends, her relationships with maybe a sometimes special person that she gets to see occasionally. And the showbiz work for her character is just a particular kind of job, and does affect her life in a certain way. I think it's similar with 'Louie,' in the way he's portraying himself as a comedian."
Still, Adlon enjoyed having fun some of her own real-life on-the-job experiences: one scene shows her auditioning opposite actress Entourage.'"
But the heart of the story is a universal one, focused squarely on the everyday dramas of trying to guide three girls into becoming resourceful and resilient young women, while trying to pay bills and carve out personal corners of joy and self-worth in the process. "I used to go to [my kids'] school with – I would call them the Robot Moms. They baked like four sheets of brownies or whatever, and I would always just feel like an a**hole," says Adlon. "I would kind of compare myself to the other moms. Then I stopped that, and I just relaxed, and I'm like, 'This is just who I am.' Then it's like, if you relax in life, then people relax around you."