It’s never been clearer that there is a current hunger for a certain televised narrative—one where a woman reaches middle age and goes through the changes and crises associated with confronting her own mortality in an ever-changing world. Many viewers complained about how over-the-top or unrealistic the Sex and the City revival series, And Just Like That..., was when it came to painting portraits of women in their 50s. Divorce, menopause, gender nonconforming children, interrogating one’s whiteness—all of the subject matter featured on And Just Like That... is grounded in auteurist realism on the FX series Better Things, thanks to Pamela Adlon, the show’s creator, star, and director.
Adlon took a personal and seemingly small conceit—a single mom and actor raises her three kids in Los Angeles, while also caring for her mother—to create Better Things, in which she stars as a sort-of version of herself: an actor named Sam Fox who became famous after starring on a sitcom as a kid, then moving into animated voiceover and the occasional bit part (Adlon herself is known for appearing on The Facts of Life in the early ’80s and winning an Emmy for voicing Bobby Hill on King of the Hill. She’s also the mother of three children, two of whom have become actors themselves). The fifth and final season of Better Things also shows Sam directing an episode of a sitcom, another meta-commentary on Adlon’s experience working in Hollywood.
Along the way, Sam’s friends—fellow character actors and directors in the industry, often playing themselves—make appearances on set or at the supermarket. And of course, Sam’s three children—Max, Frankie, and Duke—make appearances as they careen into young adulthood, and inevitably pull further and further away from Sam (and her mom, Phil, who lives across the street). In Adlon’s triumphant final season of Better Things, there is a sense of fluid, forward motion, the series creator described in an interview with W ahead of the premiere. It wouldn’t be this quippy, she says, but it gives the viewer the impression that a tagline for the show could have been something like, “Life happens, and then you move on.”
Below, Adlon reflects on her process for sticking the landing with Better Things season five, her favorite episodes, and her biggest regrets.
The final season of Better Things was filmed during the pandemic, but Covid is not acknowledged within the universe of the show. Why did you decide to leave it out?
When we started, I couldn’t really see it ending. I just thought, we’re gonna be living with it to some extent, everybody’s gonna be fatigued. Nobody’s gonna wanna see masks. I thought about 9/11—we didn’t want to talk about that for the rest of our lives, even though we’ll never forget. I thought about the Northridge earthquake. You have to move on, you adapt, and you still live with it.
I decided to put it in the show’s stories. Phil de-hoarding on the show is like what happened during the pandemic. Everybody started opening up their boxes and going on walks with their families, and keeping things that are precious very near. A lot of people said, I don’t need all this, I’m moving out of the city, I want a change in my life.
There is a lot of coming and going, traveling and momentum in these final episodes. There are also a couple wonderful musical sequences, which stand out from the way the rest of the episodes are shot. You incorporated this concept very well in the season two finale with the choreographed routine set to “Tilted” by Christine and the Queens. It makes me wonder, have you ever directed a music video? And if not, would you want to?
No. And I’m available! Well, actually I did co-direct, when I was a teenager or 20 years old. Madonna had an MTV “make my video” contest for her song “True Blue,” and we were top 10. So I can say I directed a Madonna video, and I’m ready for the next one!
What was on your playlist for this season?
I’m pretty consistent. When I write the show, I listen to Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and The Rolling Stones. A lot of Sikh chants, I love that. I love Krishna Das, and anything that’s meditative and won't take you out, but definitely is inspiring. It’s NPR and BBC every morning for me and in the car obsessively, to a bad point. I was driving in the car and “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate came on and I was like, oh my god, I’m gonna put this at the beginning of episode three: “I believe in miracles.”
All of Sam Fox’s children become more developed and nuanced over the course of each season, but it feels like Max, her eldest, has really become her own woman. Did you know that you wanted Max to go through a big transformative moment before the show ended?
I knew that I wanted Max to keep a secret from Sam. What we were developing in the writer’s room is that everybody has secrets from Sam. Even Phil gets to be a “sister” with the girls. There are kind of metaphor secrets too, which is when Frankie’s the beard for Jay, when he goes to the party and says his parents are the ones who are pretending. We always called the show a portal.
Do you have a favorite episode from any of the five seasons?
I love “White Rock” (season two, episode nine), and “Shake the Cocktail” (season three, episode 12), where Frankie runs away and comes back. All of the finales kill me, even going back to season one’s “Only Women Bleed.” Those really are just the culminating little essence of the show to me.
When you think about what you intended to do with the show when you started compared to what you have now that it’s done, what were your goals and ambitions, and do you feel like you’ve fully realized them over the course of this series?
I wish I was smart enough to be that ambitious and picture the trajectory of the show. I know people now who are trying to get shows made, they’re like, This is the way it starts and I have five seasons already locked and loaded. I'm amazed by that, but I don’t think it would work for Better Things because it’s such a fluid, organic show. My goal is to make the show timeless and evergreen. If there was anything that I had in mind, I wanted us to be able to look at the show and not really know what time or era it takes place in.
Every character has such distinct style. It feels as if over the course of five seasons, everyone’s style has become more de-gendered, in a way, with a lot of pant suits and matching sets. What did you want to say with those costumes?
There’s a definite look for everybody every season. Max has got style all the time. Frankie has always been, as you say, de-gendered. I grew up as a tomboy and androgynous—that’s where I felt comfortable. Put a dress on me, I lose all my power. I didn’t want to do anything cutesy with Duke anymore; she is hoodie, Carhartt, not trying to be seen by the world. That’s a significant thing when you’re growing up and you’re a young woman: you could be stunningly beautiful, you could be overweight, you could have acne, you could be short, you could be a little person, whatever. It doesn’t matter. You don’t want people to look at you and say anything about you. That’s the thing I was fighting for all five seasons with the kids, particularly with Frankie—don’t ascribe anything, just keep moving forward. Don’t look at me.
You’ve been working professionally since you were a kid, and in different mediums, too—lending your voice to animations, performing in live action television, directing for television. Do you have a moment in your career that you’re most proud of?
I would have to say I’m the most proud of this show, hands down. I’m also so grateful for it. Anything else, I’m just grateful for it.
How about a moment in your career that you regret?
Regrets? Oh, yes. I wouldn’t even be able to name them. Mostly, like, if you take on a job and you’re sitting there and you think, Wait, I’ve been here for eight hours and is anybody ever gonna see this movie or TV show? And I haven’t even shot one shot yet? But I can’t really regret anything because those [scenarios]—when a show was circling the drain or something was terrible—all led me to make Better Things. So I guess I shouldn’t have regrets.