Faithful watchers of Better Things would agree: FX’s shaggy, frank, soulful comedy wouldn’t work without Pamela Adlon as its star. After all, as co-creator, writer and director, Adlon based the show heavily on her own life as a middle-aged, veteran Hollywood actor, a single mother of three girls and daughter of an eccentric British mom. And her performance as protagonist/alter ego Sam Fox is fittingly authentic, lived-in and detailed in a way that very few are. But Adlon — an onscreen fixture since childhood, from Facts of Life to Grease 2 to Californication to Louis, and a voiceover standout on King of the Hill and more — was pessimistic when she pitched the autobiographical project to the brass at FX.
“I didn’t think that I could sustain a show,” Pamela tells Refinery29’s global editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich in this week’s UnStyled podcast. “I honestly thought I would sell the show, then Amanda Peet would play me. That’s what I was expecting. I thought they were going to get somebody who was prettier and cooler, and had a bigger fan base...which is anybody but me!” (With all due respect to Amanda Peet, we’re glad that didn’t happen.)
Now in its third season — the first without co-creator Louis C.K.’s involvement following his sexual misconduct scandal — Better Things continues to approach, and then marinate in, messy, everyday realities about single parenthood, female friendships, middle-aged sexuality and aging, mother-daughter relationships and the cruelties of Hollywood. It’s precisely what Adlon envisioned (with or without her onscreen presence) during that fateful pitch to FX.
“I told [a network exec] about being a woman in the world who's my age. There's a certain point that you become invisible,” she explains. Several years later? “It's worse,” she jokes. “Plus my kids are older, so [there’s] this feeling of being obsolete, you're done, you're this skin sack on the floor, your kids have used [you up], and all the meat and bones are gone.”
That “skin sack” thing aside, Pamela has crucial advice for moms eager to retain emotional intimacy with their growing kids. (Sam’s fraught relationship with her middle daughter Frankie, played by Hannah Allgood, is particularly uncomfortable, and relatable, to watch.) “No matter how you are towards your children — whether you're a Sam Fox or like a mom from the '30s or whatever, it's never going to be what the kid wants,” she points out. “If you leave them alone, they will come to you when you need them. If you're there, if you're around, they know that you are around.”
While no-nonsense Pamela is not the sentimental type, she’s been incredibly inspired by Better Things’ success — and timing, she says, was everything. “You have certain windows in your life of opportunity,” Pamela says. “I couldn't have done my show if I tried to do it a year before, and I don’t think I could have done it if I tried to it a year after. It was just exactly the right moment for me to make my show.”
To listen to Christene and Pamela’s freewheeling chat, listen to this week’s UnStyled and subscribe via Apple Podcasts today.