Pamela Adlon is a child of television — literally. Not only was the small screen a tremendous influence on the “Better Things” creator and star while she was growing up, but as a young actress she also made an impression on some of those very same iconic series.
Among Adlon’s early credits are “The Facts of Life” and “The Jeffersons.” In the eleventh season “The Jeffersons” episode “Try a Little Tenderness,” Adlon played a young hoodlum who robbed one of George Jefferson’s dry cleaners.
“Louise thought she could turn around some street kids and George was like, ‘No, you can’t,'” Adlon recalled. “He caught me robbing the dry cleaners and they take me up to their apartment with my other streetrat friend and they turned him around. [But] in the end I still picked George’s pocket. And Weezie looks at him and says, ‘You were right, George!'”
Adlon fondly recalls that era’s habit of doing cheesy “very special episodes”: “All of those shows that were gritty and talked about scary subject matter, that was my thing.”
She remembers one show in particular, when “Good Times” first introduced the character of Penny (Janet Jackson), and revealed the young girl had been abused by her mother.
It was a different era, and modern comedies like her FX series “Better Things” take a more sophisticated style of storytelling. But it’s still fun to go back and reminisce about those times.
My Favorite Episode sat down with Adlon recently to discuss her TV inspirations, growing up in the business, her big animation voice-over career, being protective of the performers who play her daughters on “Better Things,” and her long term plan for the series. Listen below:
For one of her favorite episodes of TV, Adlon chose the “Good Times” episode “The Evans Get Involved, Parts 1 and 2.” The two-part episode aired in Season 5 on September 21, 1977.
In the episode, Penny follows J.J. (Jimmie Walker) home, and eventually Willona, played by Janet DuBois, and Thelma, played by Bern Nadette Stanis, discover that she has been abused by her mother.
“I know they were told as cautionary tales so I go the opposite of that on my show,” Adlon said. “I don’t like to hit people over the head. A lot of those very special episodes were just hitting you over the head. I talk about power abuse on set in my show this season and I just show Sam getting tossed around with the cast and crew.”
“Better Things” just wrapped its third season and has been renewed for a fourth. Adlon not only stars in and writes the FX show, but she also directed all of its episodes this year. Adlon plays Sam Fox, a single mother and working actor raising her three daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) in Los Angeles. Celia Imrie plays her mother, Phil, an eccentric who lives across the street. The show is a slice of life, and extremely relatable for anyone navigating family, work, friends and more.
Adlon said FX gives her plenty of leeway on her show — which allows her to even have her kids on the show swear occasionally. She admits the ad-break structure, to make room for commercials, is challenging in an era where so many premium cable and streaming shows don’t have to worry about that.
“I’m on FX so we have act breaks. When I push the envelope in terms of running time, they say you can go 25 minutes, but you’re going to need four act breaks,” she noted. “My show is about staying in this feeling and sustaining it. And then a Stater Bros. commercial comes on and somebody gets up and goes to the bathroom and people start talking. That’s really hard when everyone’s coming up with this streaming mentality. But also, appointment television is a very exciting thing. Is it a dinosaur? It might be.”
As for the future of the show, Adlon said she’s not sure if the end game is in sight. “I am excited to make more,” she said, “but I don’t know how many years I’m going to be able to see my face in front of the camera. I’m more interested in other people’s faces.”
Variety’s “My Favorite Episode With Michael Schneider” is where stars and producers gather to discuss their favorite TV episodes ever — from classic sitcoms to modern-day dramas — as well as pick a favorite episode from their own series. On “My Favorite Episode,” some of the biggest names in TV share their creative inspirations — and how those episodes influenced them.