Pamela Adlon on Directing Every Episode of Season 2 of Her Remarkable FX Series ‘Better Things’

Pamela Adlon Portrait
Michael Lewis for Variety

On the coffee table in Pamela Adlon’s sunny Sherman Oaks office, within easy reach of her comfortable, blanket-strewn couch, is a book of photographs by Vivian Maier.

Maier, who worked as a nanny in Chicago for years, took the art world by storm when her work came to light a few years ago. Unknown before her death (her negatives were discovered after she died in 2009), she was keenly interested in all kinds of humans, from homeless people and children to shoppers and socialites. Her uncontrived images grab the viewer in part because they don’t traffic in sentimentality or cliché.

The same can be said for Adlon, creator of FX’s “Better Things,” which returns Sept. 14. After a critically acclaimed first season, she has gone full auteur. Not only did she serve as showrunner and star once again (earning an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy), but she also directed every episode of the extraordinary second season — making for an even fuller, richer, more emotionally resonant experience.

Last year, she says she and executive producer Louis C.K., with whom she writes the show, were simply trying to “find the voices” of the characters. “Now,” she says, “we’re following them and going down longer roads with them.”

“Better Things” tells the story of Sam Fox, a woman fighting for scraps of autonomy despite the time-consuming roadblocks in her path. Three of those stubborn and fascinating obstacles are her daughters — Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) —  who never stop intentionally and unintentionally challenging their mom. Her eccentric English mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), lives nearby and can always be counted on to pop over and say something perceptive — or completely inappropriate.

Michael Lewis for Variety

It’s a lot to contend with. But the most difficult limitations for Sam are often those imposed by a world that wants to constrict who she is and what she can be. With “Better Things,” which is as irreverent, spontaneous and ferociously empathic as its creator, Adlon has broken free of many of those limitations.

“It’s like an artisanal cheese of a show,” Adlon says, given the handmade quality of each half hour. She credits FX for its “hands-off” approach. “They just give a subtle and helpful note every once in a while,” she says. “It’s like being on ‘Project Runway,’ and Tim Gunn comes over and arches an eyebrow and says, ‘I like what you’re doing here.’”

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf says he’s been moved by the show — and surprised as well. “I feel like I’ve come to understand things about being a parent and about being a mom from watching this show that I didn’t understood before,” he says, “even though I have three kids and I’m married and I was raised by a single mom.”

Aesthetically and thematically, “Better Things” fits right in with the most acclaimed half hours of the moment. But the fact that Adlon’s show is built around domestic settings and has a largely female cast means that it’s nothing short of radical.

TV comedies about a woman raising kids simply don’t look like this. A fan of chunky boots and weathered jeans, Sam drinks, swears, takes up space — and she doesn’t apologize for it.

“My show is my flaws and the weird things about me that have kept me going — and also kept me from achieving,” Adlon says.

At one point in the new season, Sam, fed up with her daughters’ ingratitude, pushes them to hold a fake funeral for her and tell her why they’d miss her. In another episode, Sam unloads on a date who doesn’t realize how needy he is. It’s like listening to a foulmouthed and hilariously truthful aria. That moment hints at another revolutionary stance: Unlike most mainstream film and TV narratives, “Better Things” assumes that settling down with the right guy might add to Sam’s problems, rather than solve them.

“I’m so curious how men are going to react to that episode,” Adlon says. “They’re going to be like, ‘She’s fucking crazy.’”

And while most family-centric TV episodes — in both drama and comedy — tend to conclude with some form of rote sentiment or cloying closure, Adlon resolutely refuses to offer up any sort of happy ending.

“I don’t like things to be wrapped up neatly, because I want people to explore their own feelings about what’s happening,” Adlon says. “It’s OK to see that things don’t always work out, or there’s some catastrophic event, and the next day, there’s no mention of it. Because that’s the way real life works.”

That no-bullshit ambiguity is reflected in the show’s ads.

“I have maybe two regrets in my life, and one of them is that I didn’t film [FX marketing chief] Stephanie Gibbons pitching the first-season ad campaign to me, because it was the most fascinating thing in the world,” Adlon says. Gibbons laid out a series of visual stereotypes that have come to define mothers on TV: the businesswoman holding a baby and a briefcase, the mom with her arms crossed, ready to scold someone.

And then, Adlon recounts, Gibbons showed her the image her team had come up with: Adlon lying face down on a bed with her feet on a wall. She was sold immediately.

The new ads for “Better Things” follow suit. In the key art, Adlon is leaning back in a chair balancing on its two rear legs. She’s wobbling but staying upright.

“My show is about art and music as much as it is about people and feelings,” she says. “So the fact that these posters are art is a bonus, because they’re beautiful to look at, and they’re strong.”

The daughter of a TV writer and producer, Adlon has been on TV sets since she was very young. But for much of her career, she was cast in supporting roles (“Grease 2,” “Bed of Roses,” “Californication”) or lent her distinctive raspy voice to animated projects (“Rugrats,” “King of the Hill”). That place in the Hollywood power structure — inside it but off to the side — offered her an excellent vantage point from which to observe, dissect and analyze.

“I never had the ambition to be a director and do all of this, nor was it on my radar,” Adlon says. “When I saw Lena Dunham, when I saw an ad for ‘Girls,’ I was like, ‘What is that?’ Then I watched it. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? She’s half my fucking age, and she’s running that shit?’ That was a head-cracking moment for me.”

Having wrapped up commitments to “Californication” and then “Louie,” where she appeared on-screen and also wrote, she was ready to start telling her own stories. The critical response to the first season — in which Adlon directed two episodes — encouraged her to take over behind the camera.

Still, that 40-day shoot — which took place mostly in Los Angeles but also partly in Canada — proved a bit of an endurance test. One of Adlon’s key survival strategies: nap time.

When everyone else went to lunch, she would retreat to her character’s bedroom. Her second assistant director would help her black out all the windows and then put a strip of tape across the door, to serve as a warning to stay out.

Michael Lewis for Variety

“I would get in the bed and pass out,” says Adlon of that daily break, something she says she would “preserve with my life.” In the first season, she made the mistake of taking part in production meetings during every lunch period. But she found she needed a half hour a dayin which no one was talking to her or asking questions.

“It’s like you’re a boxer,” Adlon says. “You have to rest on the ropes.”

But there still were moments when she admits she felt “terrified” to direct the cast and the second season’s guest stars, who include Rade Serbedzija, Jane Carr, Nigel Havers and Henry Thomas.

“I’m sitting there going, ‘How do I say anything to Celia Imrie? Rade was in “Eyes Wide Shut.” How do I direct him?’” Adlon recalls. Her go-to strategy was to be clear about what she wanted but to stay open to what the actors might find.

“It’s very dangerous to be the writer as well, because if you’re precious with your lines and you’re married to something you have in your head, you’re cheating yourself as much as you’re cheating the actor,” Adlon says. “The actors come with this bag of gifts, and so you’ve got to trust in them.”

Louis C.K. says he’s in awe of what she’s delivered. “The second season has scenes in it that would terrify me as a director,” he says. “There’s 10 people talking, and she’s got three kids in the show. She’s got scenes where there are parties and people are arguing and [the action] is going places. That’s really hard to shoot right. And she found really elegant ways to shoot it and compose it.”

C.K. first began working with Adlon when he cast her in his short-lived HBO show “Lucky Louie,” in part because she had three kids. On FX’s “Louie,” she served as his most crucial sounding board: “She had an excellent instinct for how to get feelings across and how to do this kind of honest comedy about tough things,” he says. He even thinks her show surpasses his creatively.

“‘Louie’ was a workshop for us to learn how to do TV a little bit differently, but I think her show honestly is the best execution,” C.K. says. “It’s just so full of overlapping feelings and messy feelings. My show was more nihilist. It was about the absence of feelings; it was about loneliness. And her show is more about being crammed full of responsibility of people to care for. It’s a fuller meal.”

Many scenes in “Better Things” revolve around the preparation of food; get-togethers are plentiful in the Fox household. That welcoming vibe played out off camera as well.

“Taking care of people — it just comes naturally to me. I feed my crew four times a day,” Adlon says. “[Running the set] was just like I was putting a pair of old shoes on. It felt natural.”

Part of her mission was to eliminate the kinds of wasteful situations and stressful dynamics she’s experienced on other sets.

“I know what it’s like to sit and whittle your life away on a set watching men — people — waste so much time and money indulging themselves,” she sighs. “It’s insane. It doesn’t have to be that way. This whole season was an experiment in ‘Things can be great and comfortable.’ You don’t have to scrape the marrow off your bones.”

Pamela Adlon, with director of photography Paul Koestner, helmed all of season two.
Courtesy of Beth Dubber/FX

Adlon shifted her aesthetic mind-set a little as well: While still steering clear of the surreal touches that can be found in a number of acclaimed half- hours, she admits that she moved away from being very “staunchly literal” about things. “I like to stay completely authentic, but then my show was begging for a kind of magic. One of my best friends calls it ‘grace.’”

One key grace note: “We all touch the statue at the top of the stairs when we walk past it — and we never talk about it,” Adlon notes.

That explains a central part of the appeal of “Better Things”: It avoids the obvious moves. It doesn’t over-explain, and it lets complex situations marinate.

“In my storytelling, I like to bury the lead. It’s like layering a lasagna,” she says. “It’s more work for you and better satisfaction for everybody, but it takes a little bit longer to tell a story that way.”

At its base, “Better Things” is rooted in the idea that, as Sam tells students in an acting class she’s teaching, the mistakes people work hard to hide are actually a source of power. Why not celebrate the experiences that lead to moments of insight?

“I learned the most from the worst mother I knew,” says Adlon (adding that the mother in question was not her own). “You learn the most from your failures. They strengthen you.”

That confidence allowed her to tell stories that are unique in their raw honesty and immediacy.

“I used to worry so much about what people thought about me and be over-pleasing, and it was exhausting,” Adlon says. “When you stop worrying about that kind of stuff, you actually start focusing and doing the good work. The work that you’re meant to do.”

Debra Birnbaum contributed to this story.

For a review of Season 2 of “Better Things,” look here