When Pamela Adlon made the decision to direct every season-two episode of Better Things, it didn't occur to the creator/star/executive producer of the FX comedy to be nervous. In fact, it wasn't until an interview with Ali Wentworth last fall that she started feeling the pressure.
"She said, 'Are you going to direct any episodes for season two?' And I said, 'I'm going to direct all of them,'" Adlon tells The Hollywood Reporter. "And she's like, [gasps]. And everybody in the audience was like, 'Wow!' And they were clapping like I was going to war and I was going to die. I got scared. … At that moment, I was like, 'Why is everybody freaking out? Is this going to be bad?'"
Luckily for Adlon, exercising that level of involvement made things easier in the end. "Last season, I was always running everything [anyway]," says the multihyphenate. "But now I was able to actually execute everything exactly the way I wanted to."
If anyone is equipped to take on that level of creative responsibility for the Emmy-nominated series, it's Adlon. Like co-creator Louis C.K.'s acclaimed FX comedy Louie (on which Adlon also wrote, starred in and produced), Better Things is semi-autobiographical, making the project an intensely personal one. Indeed, the lives of Adlon and her character Sam Fox boast some very specific parallels. For starters, both women are L.A.-based actresses and single mothers raising three daughters; both have an English mother and a Jewish father; both were moderately successful child actors; and both have spent much of their adult careers working in voiceover.
But the similarities in many ways end there. As a six-time Emmy nominee (and one-time winner, for her voice work on King of the Hill), Adlon is significantly more successful than Sam, who largely gets by on voiceovers, commercial work and the occasional bit part. And Adlon pushes back against the idea that her real-life family members are somehow identical to the characters who represent them on the show.
"The show has become its own living, breathing thing," she says. "Everybody who's playing the characters have made their characters their own." Sam's unorthodox relationship with her children is one of Better Things' most refreshing aspects. Not unlike a certain "domestic goddess" who revolutionized family sitcoms three decades ago, Sam is virtually in open rebellion against society's unattainable ideals of motherhood. In many ways, she's the opposite of a 21st century "helicopter parent," constantly micromanaging every moment of their children's lives. And not unlike Roseanne Connor, her preferred method of child-rearing involves a liberal use of sarcasm, even disengagement.
"Roseanne was massive for me," Adlon says. "I adored that show. I mean, the show was this couple who weren't cookie-cutter, and they were sexy, and we know that they like to have sex with each other, and they flirted, and then they ragged on their kids, and their kids ragged on them, and it was such a realistic depiction. And it was fun and funny, and just — all the elements of that show completely [influenced me]."
Adlon has continued Roseanne Barr's legacy in more ways than one. Like the iconic TV powerhouse, she found success spinning her real-life experiences into honest, hilarious and occasionally moving comic vignettes. And she has similarly taken control of her own creative destiny (though Barr did so using far more hostile methods, forcing creator Matt Williams off Roseanne in the middle of its first season).
Still, the biggest influence on Adlon's decision to exert greater agency over her passion project was C.K., who famously wrote, directed and executive produced every episode of Louie (in addition to editing a significant number).
"He's my mentor," Adlon says, "because I worked with him on Louie for so many years. I mean, we would be shooting outside and it would be 20 [degrees] below in the winter, and we'd be freezing, and we'd get into a car to warm up, and he'd be editing his episodes on his laptop." Not that she would ever go quite so far. "He always went one step further, 'cause I'm never going to fucking be an editor," she added dryly.
Similar to Louie, Better Things has a decidedly cinematic visual style that's still rare for a TV sitcom (albeit somewhat less so in this peak TV age). In one season-two episode, viewers drift in and out of Sam's mind as she recalls a chance meeting with a potential suitor. As her reverie is visualized in a breezy kaleidoscope of silent images, the voices of her invading children melt into a low murmur beneath a dreamlike melody. Like C.K., Adlon is heavily influenced by art house cinema, a love she indulged beginning in her late teens.
"I lived in West Hollywood, and there was a Video West store by me, so it was just this kind of independent John Sayles, just any kind of thing that was alternative that I could get my hands on was a big influence for me," says Adlon, who experimented with filmmaking long before she had her own show.
"The first thing that I ever made was a documentary that I shot … in downtown L.A. about a group of homeless people," she continues, referencing a film entitled Street Sweep that she co-directed with Karen Petrasek in the mid '80s. "We were with this group of homeless people; we [filmed] them. Then we brought them into a recording studio, we recorded their music and their poetry, and we cut it on 16 millimeter."
Adlon's interest in "serious" filmmaking bleeds into her work on Better Things thematically as well. While the series is often hysterically funny (and inevitably falls into the comedy category come awards season), it also functions as an occasionally moving meditation on motherhood. Without spoiling anything, one standout episode midway through season two veers from wildly funny to darkly humorous to deeply moving in the span of 15 minutes. So does Adlon ever cry while watching her own show?
"Oh god … are you kidding me?" she says. "I mean, I cry in the editing room constantly. Constantly. And you know, the more it comes together, and the more we piece things together, when you start getting the feeling … oh, it just makes me crazy!"
As an actress, Adlon is afforded a certain catharsis in playing out scenarios that may mirror situations in her actual life. In another season-two episode, Sam berates someone in a brutally honest monologue that feels bracingly real. The effect of veering back and forth between the roles of star and director can induce a sort of whiplash, requiring Adlon to compartmentalize in the midst of acting out emotional scenes.
"Just [filming] that scene, I have to separate myself," she says. "Sometimes my script supervisor, Babette [Stith], would come over to me and say, 'I need to speak to the actor Pamela now.' And I'd be like, 'Oh, here I am! Present!' And then my D.P. would come over and say, 'I need to speak to the director Pamela now.' And I'd be like, 'OK, let me go get her.'"
As capable as Adlon is, the pressure inherent in balancing all of these roles during production inevitably takes a psychological toll. But she has found her ways of coping. Cooking for her family, she says, often calms her nerves ("It's really good occupational therapy"). Other times, the most effective method is one of the most primal.
"Sometimes when I'm in the car driving, I scream at the top of my lungs," she admits with trademark candor. "Which is very fucking helpful. … Because I get anxiety, you know? I get anxious. I think we all do, and I think everybody right now is a little bit PTSD from everything that's happening. [Laughs.] So you know, it's just like — I try to honor the way my brain and my body feel."
Of course, motherhood gave her an effective crash course in weathering intense strain. "I am a single mom of three girls, and I'm getting through that," she says. "If I can get through that, I can direct a whole season of television that I star in."
Better Things premieres Sept. 14 on FX.