Poster: Mr. Television
(see this users gallery)
Pamela Adlon Is Starring in Her Very Own Zen Riddle
By DAVE ITZKOFF SEPT. 1, 2016 (NYT)
Somewhere on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, as Pamela Adlon shuttled herself among a voice-recording session for one TV show she works on, an editing session for another and school registration for her middle daughter, she decided it was an opportune moment to call me and talk about her new FX comedy, “Better Things.”
Finding herself, a Hollywood actor raising three children on her own, in a circumstance that could easily befall her “Better Things” protagonist, Sam Fox, a Hollywood actor raising three children on her own, Ms. Adlon had to laugh. (Even as she kept driving.)
“The show lives me, or I live the show,” she said. “It’s one of those Zen riddles.”
It is a dual existence she has been living for more than a year now, as she prepares for the Thursday, Sept. 8, debut of “Better Things,” a comedy series that marks a pivotal moment for Ms. Adlon, an Emmy Award-winning actor from live-action comedies (“Californication”) and animated shows (“King of the Hill”).
Known to FX viewers for her work on “Louie,” where she has played Louis C.K.’s close friend (and sometime girlfriend) and written for that show, Ms. Adlon has her own opportunity to carry a semi-autobiographical series: not just star in it, but write it, direct it and hold ultimate responsibility for whatever shape it takes.
Louis C.K. is both a benefactor of “Better Things” and the shadow from which it needs to emerge. He created the show with Ms. Adlon, wrote for several of its episodes and directed its pilot. Now “Better Things,” which has a 10-episode first season, must demonstrate it is more than just the female or West Coast counterpart to “Louie,” which remains on hiatus while its principal architect sows other creative oats.
For Ms. Adlon, these challenges matter less than the thrill of discovering that she had a show in her and the ability to run it. “Making all the decisions, being the boss — that was effortless for me,” she said. “It just came second nature. The being-on-TV part gave me diarrhea for days.”
Show business has always been in Ms. Adlon’s blood. Her father, Don Segall, was a morning TV producer and comedy writer. Though she preferred not to give her own age, she is old enough to have appeared as a child actor in the chambers of “Night Court” and the deluxe East Side apartment of “The Jeffersons,” among other 1980s sitcoms, and in films like “Grease 2.”
As an adult, Ms. Adlon has long imagined what a series of her own might look like. That possibility became tangible when FX struck an overall deal with Louis C.K. that has allowed him to cultivate other shows, including the Zach Galifianakis comedy “Baskets” on FX and “One Mississippi,” starring Tig Notaro on Amazon. (His most recent project, the online series “Horace and Pete,” was produced outside of this deal.)
He turned to Ms. Adlon, whom he has known since he cast her as his wife on his short-lived HBO comedy “Lucky Louie” and with whom he said he shares an artistic shorthand.
“She always uses the phrase ‘make a feeling,’ which is to add an extra thing to a scene,” Louis C.K. said. “Don’t just try to execute the dialogue and shoot it. Make a feeling. I live by a lot of things she has said to me.”
Over many conversations, he and Ms. Adlon, who was divorced in 2010, came up with a premise inspired by the real-life pitfalls she faces as the primary parent of three teenage children. (Through its earliest episodes, “Better Things” is ambiguous about the relationship between Sam and the father of her children.)
“I have no zone defense,” Ms. Adlon explained. “I have no partner. I don’t have a relationship to freak out over or a focus group to make decisions. I make the decisions on my own, whether they’re right or wrong.”
Like Ms. Adlon, Sam Fox has three daughters — one almost college age, one in the throes of puberty and one preadolescent — and just like the actor portraying her, the character’s mother (played on the show by Celia Imrie) lives just across the street.
Yet as Ms. Adlon started to write for her alter ego, she said she could not escape the “old-school TV mentality that lives in your brain,” telling her that more exotic trappings were needed. “Do I have a gay brother?” she asked. “Does he live in the guesthouse in the back? Do we talk about what happened to the kids’ dad? Does somebody rob a bank?”
The advice Louis C.K. gave her, she said, was: “Just don’t think about story. Just put that out of your head. You just keep writing.”
With that in mind, Ms. Adlon said, “I just kept writing scenes, and then characters would come to life.”
As comedic collaborators, Ms. Adlon and Louis C.K. share a sense of humor: world-weary and mistrustful of the arbitrary use of authority (especially as wielded by the entertainment industry), but loving at its core. But when it came time to pitch the show, he said, “I told Pamela that she couldn’t exercise her actor’s pessimism.”
“Pessimism is the self-preservationist’s tactic,” he explained. “Optimism doesn’t do you any good as an actor. It’s a coping mechanism to say, ‘I’m not going to get this,’ and move on with your life.”
But to create and produce a show, he said: “You have to be prepared for success. You can’t be flat-footed when they say, ‘Get to work.’”
FX picked up “Better Things” because, as John Landgraf, the chief executive of FX Networks, said, it saw the potential for “a highly cinematic, highly specific, original and personal show.”
Mr. Landgraf said he told Ms. Adlon at the time, “If you have to take creative risks or do things that are scary or different to achieve that, do it.”
Getting comfortable enough to take those chances, Ms. Adlon acknowledged, was “a muscle that I built up over this past year, of prep and production and writing up until the last minute.” For her to take the plunge and direct some of the later episodes — something Ms. Adlon had never done before — required some encouragement from Louis C.K.
“What I advocated for was to give Pamela more control over the show,” he said. “So that’s what we did.”
Even the promotional campaign for the show, which depicts an exasperated Ms. Adlon lying face down on a bed with her boots touching the wall, was a departure from what FX felt it had seen in the marketing for previous female-led shows.
“If it’s a woman, she automatically has to be defined in relation to the many hats she has to wear,” Mr. Landgraf said of those other examples. “She’s raising children, she’s cooking dinner, she’s trying to figure out how to be beautiful.”
Ms. Adlon said that hiding her face in these billboards and posters had spared her family some grief. “My kids will still be able to ride the bus and not be like, ‘Ew, mom,’” she said. “Even though it’s my ass.”
M. Blair Breard, an executive producer of “Better Things,” who has also worked on “Louie,” “Baskets” and “Horace and Pete,” said that Ms. Adlon’s show was “female driven” but did not a have “feminist agenda.”
“I call myself, proudly, a feminist,” Ms. Breard said. “But it is just about a person in her life. She happens to be female. She has kids. They happen to be female. She has a parent who lives across the street. She happens to be her mother.”
Ms. Breard added, “It really is just these people and their lives and the stories that are happening.”
Ms. Adlon said she was proud to be part of a “natural progression” in television that has led to a wider range of comedy shows with female leads, including Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” Maria Bamford’s “Lady Dynamite” and Ms. Notaro’s “One Mississippi.”
It wasn’t yet clear to Ms. Adlon how the lessons and values of “Better Things” might be received by her real-life daughters — she has already allowed her oldest daughter to see some parts of it — but she concedes that it is only a matter of time before all three of her children find a way to watch it.
Though Ms. Adlon tries to enforce a no-TV policy in her household, she said: “In my head, I’m still living in 1974, like, ‘Ha! At least my kids don’t have televisions in their rooms!’ They all have TV in their rooms because they all use laptops and phones.”
She let out one more self-deprecating laugh and said, “I’m so old.”