This is fuckin’ inner sanctum,” says Pamela Adlon. We’re speaking over FaceTime, and this is a quiet morning in Los Angeles for her. Her writers are about to turn up and start working on season four of Better Things, the neat, witty and often beautiful comedy loosely based on Adlon’s own life. As soon as she’s finished ordering lunch for her team, and sage to cleanse the energy of the office – this is the West Coast, after all – she leaps up and launches straight into a virtual tour. She shows me the lanterns that make the place cosy, and an old black-and-white picture of her English mother wearing her Canadian Air Force uniform. There’s a record player and a shelf full of vinyl. “Look at this!” she yells, as we whizz past a piece of paper taped on to a door that reads CRYING ROOM. “You know, you just need a room where you can go and cry,” she shrugs. “We got these movie theatre seats, and it has chargers, and here is a little pedal bike and there’s an African chair I got at a flea market.” She makes me promise not to read the board on the wall behind her, where the plots are being worked out. “Stop it!” she shouts, grinning. “Cover your eyes!”
Adlon spends a lot of time in this inner sanctum. She writes and directs Better Things, the show she created about Sam Fox, whom she plays, a single mother who is a jobbing actor raising her three daughters in LA, just like she is. (Its first season ran in the UK earlier this year; the second, a low-key candidate for best comedy on TV, is about to begin.) Quietly brilliant, it is an unsentimental look at family life and working single mothers – blunt, warm, fascinated by the absurdity of trying to hold it all together. Which, it turns out, is exactly what Adlon is like in real life. At times, trying to keep her on track in a conversation can be like filling a leaky bucket. “That is probably not what you asked me. I tend to go off the rails,” she says at one point, segueing from a story about selling all of her possessions in her 20s to her mother being born during the Blitz.
The show, which does not shy away from the difficulties of raising three young women under one roof, or looking after an elderly and increasingly dotty mother who lives next door, is often described as “raw”. “I like raw,” Adlon protests. “I prefer raw to ‘brave’. When people are like, ‘You’re so brave…’” She grabs a fistful of her legs. She has no qualms about appearing on screen in her pants. “I tell my girlfriends, that’s what real thighs look like. I’m like: brave, bitch! So brave.”
Better Things is about finding the humour and the heart in divorce, death, bad decisions, in not having enough time for your kids or your work, in having to grind to get by. “I think the theme throughout the show is, there’s hope and there’s love and there’s laughter, amidst all this dark shit, you know? There’s a flower growing up through a turd,” she explains, succinctly. “I like to feel hope, and I like to laugh at things that are dark. You need somebody in your life, if you’re having the worst possible fucking day, to laugh at you. To point at you and say, ‘Oh bro, that’s hysterical.’”
In the past, Adlon has called Better Things “semi-autobiographical”. Today she is measured about the similarities between the show and her life. “Well, I have three daughters, I’m a single mom, I have an English mother, I’m an actor,” she shrugs – but she also admits that she has spent her whole life watching, writing things down, gathering material to use. Her eccentric English mother, played by Celia Imrie, loves being written into the series. “Because when I tell her, ‘Mom, you’re being extra sassy right now,’ she says, ‘You love it! You get more material for your show.’” She nods. “I can’t argue.”
She was at the gym with her friend recently. “And she’s literally the most miserable person in the world. She starts talking, and she’s crying, and crying. And I turn to the woman next to me and I go, ‘You know why she’s crying? Cos her husband just left her. Two kids. She’s almost 50.’ And she’s working out, and she starts laughing hysterically, through her tears. Isn’t it hilarious?” She laughs. “I shouldn’t even tell you this, because I’m making it a scene in the show.” Another friend told her recently that she’d always assumed Adlon wasn’t listening to her. “And then she saw my show, and she said, ‘I realise you’re really listening.’ I’m surprised that people don’t tread more lightly around me.”
Now 52, Adlon has been a professional actor since she was 10. She was a child star in a popular US sitcom The Facts of Life, and appeared alongside Lorna Luft and Michelle Pfeiffer as a wisecracking kid sister in Grease 2. For the most part, she says, she felt protected in those environments. But talking about those years brings back memories. There was an independent film and a scene in a swimming pool. “And the director said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if you dropped the towel for a minute, and we saw your butt, just for a minute?’ And I was 15 years old. I had to kiss a boy in that movie, too, and I hadn’t done that. And I remember being really uncomfortable and feeling scared, because what are the parameters? The kid actor looked at me and said, ‘An apple is an apple, a plum is a plum, a kiss isn’t a kiss without the tongue.’ And I was just gutted.”
It was a shock to go from being famous and on television as a kid to being in her 20s, on unemployment benefits, having to sell her possessions. The loss of her record collection, in particular, still smarts. “Oh! Do you have to bring that up? I’m still upset. I can see the records,” she says. But she realised that, with her unique smoke and honey voice, she could earn her living another way. “I started hitting it in voiceover and animation,” she explains, which sustained her for much of her career; her biggest voice job was as Bobby in King of the Hill. In the new season of Better Things, she has a character say, “I know you were Rooster on Ching of the Mill.” “It’s so stupid,” she says. “I didn’t even bother making up a new title.”
Like Sam Fox, Adlon is a jobbing actor, and her work rate has been so prodigious that her CV has the heft of a weighty novel: “No job too big or small, is my motto, and every single job led me to where I am.” She spent several years as Marcy Runkle in Californication, the explicit, hedonistic Showtime series, where she played a foul-mouthed wisecracker who regularly shot off insults like “Die young and suffer, dickless.” When her eldest daughter, Gideon, was starting a new school, Adlon told her: “There’s gonna be people who watch the show, and it’s a show for adults.” She didn’t want the kids to watch it just because their friend’s mother was in it. “But what an innocent time that was! Because now the shit that kids watch on their phones and everything? Forget it!” She remembers a parent coming up to her, with her 12-year-old and nine-year-old in tow. “They said, ‘Oh Pamela, we watch your show, we love it.’” She cackles. “And I said, ‘You’re kidding?’ And she said, ‘No no, we love it.’ And then her little nine-year-old was like, ‘Yah, it’s really good.’ I looked at her and said: ‘The show is not for kids.’” She slips into stern parent mode. “I mean, how do you explain ‘stunt cock’ to your nine-year-old daughter?” she says. “Fuckin’ asshole.”
Around the same time as Californication, Adlon was working closely with her friend and collaborator Louis CK on his series Lucky Louie and Louie. He later returned production and writing favours on the first two seasons of Better Things. Then allegations of sexual misconduct against CK surfaced in 2017, and Adlon found herself caught in the crossfire, her own show hanging in the balance through its association with him. She spoke about how “devastating” it was in an interview with the New Yorker, but the only condition of this conversation was that we wouldn’t bring him up today. One of the more peculiar aspects of the #MeToo groundswell has been women being asked to answer for men’s transgressions; it seems reasonable to not ask her to do so again. Besides, Better Things did not exactly sink without CK, who was not involved in season three. When Adlon took sole charge, critics praised it for finding its voice and a new sense of invention.
Adlon is a single mother; she got married in the mid-90s, and divorced a decade ago. Her ex-husband, the father of her kids, moved to Europe. “I don’t talk about him,” she says, in a rare closed moment, though she leans into the screen, and adds: “Really not convenient for drop-offs on the weekend, and stuff like that.” She always knew that she had Better Things in her, but it took her years to feel ready to go ahead and make it, in part because she was raising three young children alone.
“I had to say no to a lot of things, because I did not want to take on more than I could handle,” she says. The final push came when she was working on a big budget, big network television show – she won’t tell me the name of it, but will say, “It was fuckin’ awful, a circling-the-drain, terrible, American television show” – and a Friday turned into a Saturday, and it was midnight, and they still hadn’t finished half of what they were supposed to. “Ice water went through my veins and it was like, ‘Don’t these people have families? What the fuck are they doing?’ That was the moment that I thought, I’m ready. I’m ready to do this.”
Her three daughters, now 21, 18 and 16, are “incredibly proud” of her. “They see their mom being a boss and running a show, and hiring a ton of people, and how important this job is to so many people. It’s absolutely an unbelievable situation. To see their mom really make it big when she hit 50, after kind of just middling the line for so long…” This seems to go against the traditional Hollywood narrative, that women have an expiration date. “I think it’s still true, but it’s less true,” Adlon says. “I think that if you can make yourself viable, anything is possible.” She does, however, think she should have started directing sooner. “I wish I hadn’t just stayed in one lane for so long. That bothers me, that I was myopic in that way. Now I have six jobs, and I wish that I had kind of committed to doing that, instead of, oh, I only act.”
Still, she is a firm believer in everything happening for a reason. There is an earth mother warmth to Adlon, and it’s not just the sage, or the crying room. She has taken her own industry experiences and used them to ensure that the patterns are not repeated. “All of those things really helped me,” she explains. “So for example, when I did Californication, there were so many young women who came on the show, and they had to do nudity, or do a simulated sex scene, or make out. And so I just made it my mission to try and soothe people and talk them through it and say, don’t do anything you don’t feel comfortable with, or don’t be ashamed, or love your body now, but don’t ever get pushed into doing something you don’t want to do.” The number one priority on Better Things, she says, is that “I would never ask somebody to do something that I wouldn’t do myself, and that they wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable doing.”
Adlon is such a nurturer that by the end of our conversation, when she’s introduced me to her assistant Ryan, and we’ve had a chat about his life, and how seeing Adlon run her own show while also looking after her daughters made him call his own mother more, and Adlon has introduced me to her writers, including Patricia Resnick (“She wrote 9 to 5!” she yells, proudly), I find myself asking her how she stays so hopeful in a world that seems to discourage it at every turn. I want to know how she finds the flower in the turd. She falls back into her chair. “Ryan told me about how this one organisation has figured out a way to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. And I was like, ‘Well I was reading about how these teenagers figured out how to break down styrofoam.’ So it’s these little things. These little things! And you know, my kids are so aware. My youngest daughter is going to DC in December for a week with the ACLU and her platform is women’s reproductive rights, and justice. My 16-year-old. It makes me wanna cry.” She tears up, not for the first time; hope makes her emotional. “You’ve got to have hope,” she insists. “If humanity doesn’t have hope, there’s nothing to live for.” She stops talking. There is a perfect pause.
“Wow,” she hoots. “I sound like an asshole. Wowwww.”
Season two of Better Things starts on Wednesday 17 July at 10pm on BBC Two.