Pamela Adlon has never been cocky. That’s what happens when you spend decades as a bit player or an animated boy or get fired from “The Facts of Life” and then, when you finally get a chance to create your dream show, it almost falls apart. If you’re Adlon, the creator, director and star of FX’s “Better Things,” you never get so comfortable that you forget to end each season as if it were your last.
Which puts her in a good position now, because the 10-episode fifth season of “Better Things,” premiering Feb. 28, will be the show’s finale. Adlon, 55, seems prepared, philosophical even. And yet, depending on what day or time it is, she’s either thrilled, panicked, relieved or sad.
“I’m not overjoyed my show’s ending,” says Adlon by Zoomfrom her kitchen in Los Angeles, where she’s about to pop a pot roast in the oven after a day of editing at the office. “But I don’t want to sit in sadness. I have to look for the light and keep going.”
This is very Sam Fox.
Her character in “Better Things” is so much — single mother, struggling actress, observer, agitator, nurturer, punchline machine — but Sam’smagic gift is in the oof moment. It is when something has gone wrong and, rather than explode, she lets her knees buckle, breathes in and exhales that oof quietly but audibly. Then she keeps going. And the oof can come at any time: when her agent delivers a crushing career setback or when she accidentally catches her teenage daughter in bed with a strange boy.
The oof is the coping reflex of survival and it is there to buffer viewers as we “walk the hairy edge,” as Adlon describes it, of her creation. “Better Things” is about yelling so hard you begin to laugh and then everybody’s somehow laughing and you forget what you were yelling about. That is how you make the most honest family sitcom on television.
“Sometimes, I look at my show, look at the script, stand on the set and I’m like, ‘Wait a second; we’re not doing that,’ ” she says. “This is not a f---ing Nickelodeon show. This is ‘Better Things.’ We talk about uncomfortable s---, we say things that are like, shocking or whatever, because we need to figure it out.”
Sharon Stone, a fan of “Better Things” who ended up doing a guest spot during Season 3, says that “every mother has to see that show.”
“We’re all battling to keep our head above water,” she says, “and I think her show makes us feel like someone understands what it’s like.”
If Adlon’s show is not her life, it’s at least close enough to sniff the origins. Adlon and Sam are both unpleasantly divorced single parents to three girls. They have British mothers who live next door and lost their fathers, men who scuffled through careers in the business, when they were young. Adlon found success as a voice actor, doing Bobby for 13 seasons alongside Mike Judge’s Hank on the animated sitcom “King of the Hill.” Sam also depends on her voice. In one episode, she is called to reprise her role on an animated show called “Ching of the Mill.” Judge does a cameo as the show’s producer.
“I’d say the reason the show feels so authentic is that it is,” says actor Kevin Pollak, who plays Fox’s brother, Marion.
This blurring of reality and fiction can be a point of contention with Adlon’s real daughters, Gideon, 24; Odessa, 21; and Rocky, 18. They have watched as their lives, whether an awkward graduation or a friend whose mother allowed them to smoke pot, are adapted for TV by on-camera daughters Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Riley, formerly Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward).
“As an artist, I get that and that’s why I’m not angry,” says Gideon, who is an actress. “And that’s why I’m happy that this show exists, because it’s such an honest portrayal of a family. But within that, of course, we’ve all been a little bit hurt. I think I’m the only one of my sisters that hasn’t watched fully every season. There’s just some s--- I don’t want to relive.”
Adlon started acting at 9. Her father, Don Segall, grew up in Boston and worked in both New York and Los Angeles as a kind of entertainment business journeyman, writing comic books, producing a morning TV show and penning episodes for “The Love Boat” and “Chico and the Man.” While in the Army, he met his future wife, British-born Marina Leece, at a USOevent in Paris. Their 30-year marriage produced two children: Pamela and Gregory.
At Beverly Hills High School, Pam Segall stood out in a student body that included musician Lenny Kravitz, future Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and actor Nicolas Cage.
“She was very much like she is today,” says Kravitz, who was a guest star on Season 1 of “Better Things.” “Quick wit, smart and didn’t give a s--- about fitting in. I had a big crush on her.”
Her movie debut came as pink lady wannabe Dolores Rebchuck in 1982’s “Grease 2,” and she spent a season playing bad girl Kelly Affinado on the NBC sitcom “The Facts of Life” (for reasons unknown to her, she wasn’t asked back). Somewhere in there, Adlon got a camera and, with a friend, made a documentary about the homeless called “Street Sweep.” There was a stint at Sarah Lawrence College and then a succession of bit parts, from Lloyd’s turtlenecked friend in 1989’s “Say Anything” to Sgt. Raquel Barbella in Steve Martin’s 1996 movie “Sgt. Bilko.”
Also in 1996, she married Felix Adlon, a German film screenwriter whom she would divorce in 2010. Eventually, it was Adlon’s expressive voice, which can range from husky and thick to twangy and almost childlike, that got her a steady gig: In 1997, she began her run on “King of the Hill.”
“She was always one of the funniest people in person that I’ve ever met and the most foul-mouthed people I’ve ever met,” says Judge, who co-created the show with Greg Daniels. “And yeah, I thought, why isn’t she just a huge comedy star? I mean, she always worked, but I thought what she was getting wasn’t quite in the pocket for how talented she is.”
But the industry Adlon grew up in did not embraceambitious women. This was well before Lena Dunham created “Girls” or Issa Rae launched “Insecure.” (Dunham and Rae are 20 and 18 years younger than Adlon, respectively.) In that sexist universe, when casting directors would proclaim Julia Louis-Dreyfus “not hot” enough, no woman was going to get a chance to create, direct, writeand star in her own show.
It was a man who would give Adlon her big break — and not just any man, but the comedian Louis C.K. In 2006, he was creating a show for HBO and needed somebody to play his wife. “Lucky Louie” lasted just a season, but it led to Adlon getting a regular part on “Californication.” During C.K.’s five-season run of his next project, “Louie” on FX, Adlon became a consulting producer and co-wrote seven episodes. In 2015, C.K. told FX president John Landgraf that he needed to give Adlon her own show.
“The longer I do this, the more I’ve come to believe that all of the traditional methodologies that we use to identify, groom and promote talented artists are effective, but limited and flawed,” says Landgraf. “Because to think that Pamela managed to get to 51 years old without ever directing a frame of television, I just don’t believe that would have happened to a man of Pamela’s talent.”
Adlon’s obsessive attention would define “Better Things.” When the show was launching, she wanted John Lennon’s 1970 recording of “Mother” for the title credits. A song like that should be out of reach for a new series with a limited budget. But Adlon wrote a heartfelt letter to Yoko Ono, Lennon’s widow. The song, she wrote, “embodies everything that my life is about as well as my show.”
“My daughters have been listening to the song for the past year,” she continued. “They adore it. It has deep, cathartic meaning for them. Which is what I’m hoping ‘Better Things’ can be for many people. It’s pro-women, pro-aging and pro-equality on all levels. It can also be bitingly funny and a little bit naughty.”
“It was expensive,” Landgraf says of the Lennon song. “And it was essential.”
The show’s title came from a favorite Kinks song.The art in Sam Fox’s house came from Adlon’s own home. She had Sam wear a wrist brace, mirroring her own battles with tendinitis. And then there were her TV daughters. Max and Frankie, the older ones, were independent, creative, emotional and, more than occasionally, downright abusive to their mother. Duke, the baby, opened the show’s pilot standing next to Sam in a mall, crying a big, fake cry as Sam punched out a message on her phone and a woman stared.
“Do you want to buy her the earrings?” Sam asked the onlooker. “’Cause that’s why she’s crying. Because of $6 earrings. She has them at home already. But she wants them right now so … you should go right into that store and buy them for her, ’cause I’m not doing it. … Or stop looking.”
“For somebody watching the show, you find that universality in the specificity,” says Stacey Sher, who has produced films with Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh and is working with Adlon to adapt a limited series for FX about Addyi, the “female Viagra” drug. “These are the things you usually don’t see. The flaws, the mistakes, the triumphs. Andshe can do all of that while being funny.”
There was a moment, midway through the show’s run, when Adlon wasn’t quite so sure of that. It came in 2017, as the final two episodes of Season 2 were airing, when C.K. confirmed reports of sexual misconduct. Suddenly, the man who had given Adlon her big break, who was her co-creator and co-writer for the first two seasons of “Better Things,” was thrust into the spotlight as a radioactive predator.
Adlon cut ties withC.K. She also decided to kill her show. What other choice did she have? Wouldn’t everybody think of C.K.’s misdeeds whenever they watched? Landgraf and others urged her to reconsider. They knew that Adlon could run “Better Things” alone.
“They were a creative partnership that worked really, really well together and had for a long time, but I never saw him once when we were shooting Season 2,” says Pollak.
“We were like, ‘You did it already and you’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to keep telling these stories,’ ” says Susie Balaban, a longtime friend who has worked as an assistant director in television. “In a way, I think it was a kind of blessing.”
Season 3 opened with Sam Fox in front of a mirror trying on clothes. Nothing fit. The idea came from Adlon’s actual weight gain between seasons. This is what people often call brave, a term she dislikes. It wasn’t brave, she says; it was real. And funny.
“I was in my closet trying on my clothes and I was like, ‘This just fit me; I literally just wore this,’ ” she says. “And I couldn’t believe it. I had a big pile of clothes to give to Goodwill and I said, no, I’m keeping these and I’m going to do this on my show.”
She pauses and recounts the motto of “Better Things”: “Bad for my life, good for my show.”
It was during Season 3 that Adlon faced the collateral damage from the C.K. scandal. On an excruciating episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air” meant to promote the new season, host Terry Gross pressed repeatedly about C.K. until Adlon politely noted that she and comedian Sarah Silverman, another close friend of the comedian, were experiencing a kind of reverse #MeToo’ing.
“We’re having to answer for these men as opposed to talking about our lives and ourselves,” Adlon said.
As time passed, the questions faded. Without C.K., she hired four writers and went back to work. Off camera, she also set the tone for “Better Things.” She is a natural mentor, says Erica Sterne McGhee, who started as a post-producer and today is director of development for Adlon’s production company, Slam Book Inc. Just over half of the 248 people working on the final season of “Better Things” were women.
Monica Corbin, who spent time with Adlon as part of a mentorship program, remembers visiting a shoot at a supermarket last year. Corbin was standing in the front of the store when she heard, from somewhere, Adlon screaming out, “Monica, where are you?”
As soon as Corbin found her in an aisle, Adlon waved her over.
“Come over here to stand next to me so you can see what I’m doing,” Corbin remembers being told. “So I was literally sitting over her shoulder watching her direct.”
On a recent weekday, Adlon and Annie Eifrig, the show’s supervising editor, were in front of the monitors working through Episode 9.
As Eifrig clicked through footage, Adlon’s eyes darted between the screen and her iPhone. There were emails about some of the projects she’s hoping to step into, including an adaptation of Rachel Stavis’s book “Sister of Darkness,” and an animated project she and Judge are developing with rock icon Joan Jett. Something was going on with her girls and she told Rocky she’d be home early for dinner.
The episode on Eifrig’s screen spoke to one of the challenges Adlon overcame to make the final season of “Better Things.” It was shot entirely in London. That’s where her TV mother, played by Celia Imrie, lives. Imrie, 69, cannot fly because of a health issue. In the past, she took the Queen Mary 2 to the States. With covid, there were no cruises. After considering other options, including Zoom-directing her scenes, Adlon decided to take Sam and the entire family to Imrie. That led to a dramatic plot twist that will be revealed when the episode airs on April 18.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Imrie of Adlon’s decision to film in England. “But you know, she is a perfectionist.”
Adlon has been thinking about this a lot. When she started “Better Things,” she didn’t realize what it would become. It was an opportunity and a job. “I just needed to keep working,” she says.
Before long, Adlon realized the show had become something special.
“That window opened, which I barely squeaked through, and if I didn’t do my show then, it never would have happened,” she says. “The window would have shut.”
The decision to end “Better Things,” she says, was mutual: “They weren’t forcing me to stop and I wasn’t demanding to stop. It just felt like a really good place to end this chapter for both of us.”
She contemplates maybe coming back in a few years, revisiting Sam Fox and her daughters, but for now, she’s eager to do something new.
Life has changed and not changed. She hears it all the time now. When somebody pitches a show, they say it’s going to be like another “Better Things.” And yet, as she tries to launch her next thing — directing an adaptation of Ariel Leve’s memoir, “An Abbreviated Life” — she is told that the money won’t come until she can secure the two leads. Suddenly, it’s as if she’s back to square one.
“If you want me to be the actor whisperer, let me do that,” Adlon says, her arms raised now and her voice at its raspiest. “It’s the old joke. We’re looking for a ‘Better Things’ type. Okay. I’m right here. Let’s go! Let’s go!”