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When FX marketing chief Stephanie Gibbons pitched the first ad campaign for Better Things to its star and creator Pamela Adlon, she laid out a series of visuals depicting every mom we’ve ever seen on TV: the busy career mom holding a baby and a briefcase, the harried housewife, the family scold, et cetera. The last image was Adlon – lying face down on a bed with her feet on a wall.
Adlon loved it. It wasn’t your typical ad for a TV comedy about a mom raising kids, but that’s exactly what Better Things isn’t. In the decidedly unvarnished, Emmy-nominated FX show based on her own life, Adlon plays Sam Fox, a divorced actress raising three daughters. She drinks, works, nurtures, dates and kvetches in equal, eloquent measure; reviewers have likened her unapologetic foul-mouthed rants (on family, suitors, and life in general) to comic arias. “My show is my flaws and the weird things about me that have kept me going — and also kept me from achieving,” says Adlon.
What got her going in the first place was her dad. Don Segall was a journeyman writer and producer for TV, as well as comic books and pulp fiction. Adlon grew up on sound stages in New York and L.A. telling jokes and warming up audiences, knowing it was the world she wanted to remain a part of. She did radio voiceover work at nine, and decided at 11 that having an agent sounded like the most fun ever. She read one spot for a Tide commercial and was signed immediately.
She landed her first feature (Grease 2) at 16 and a recurring role on iconic ’80s sitcom The Facts of Life the following year. She often played androgynous characters (Bad Manners, Willy/Milly), tomboys, or actual boys, once auditioning – successfully – for The Redd Foxx Show disguised as “Paul Segall.”
Her atypical looks might be one of the aforementioned “weird things” that kept her from achieving. Almost as quickly as she’d landed a permanent spot on the 1992 Fox sitcom Down the Shore she was written off. The producers didn’t feel she was good looking enough, as traditional young sitcom actresses go. “I went from buying my own condominium and a car for myself when I was 17 on The Facts of Life to not being able to pay my rent,” she told The New York Times. “I was at the unemployment office all the time.”
In her 20s and struggling, she was suddenly in need of something to keep her going. It turned out to be what got her going in the first place: voice work. She got parts on Rugrats and Recess, and in 1997, played her most famous boy yet: Bobby Hill, King of the Hill’s pudgy, endearing preteen. Auditioning cold, she came up with his raspy, world-weary voice on the spot. It won her steady paychecks, one of her all time favorite jobs, and an Emmy. She’s racked up 100 some-odd voice roles since, most recently as Vidia in Disney’s Tinkerbell comedy adventure series.
Her next steady live action gig came on Californication, hardly Disney material. She was originally supposed to appear in just the pilot and maybe a couple early episodes, but series creator Tom Kapinos just couldn’t stop writing for her. As Marcy Runkle she raunched her way through some of the show’s most depraved story lines. Kapinos called her the show’s secret weapon. “I feel like I can write anything for her, and she’ll knock it out of the park. There’s always a special joy when you write some filthy speech for her and know she’s going to turn it into magic. It’s like gutter poetry.” Adlon loved every moment of it, except the ones where she had explain her screen antics to her real-life daughters, or hearing that their school friends were fans.
Californication ran for seven seasons, and between that and other projects, Adlon had little time for another idea that had been on the backburner for a while – a show based on her own experiences as an actress and single mom who also values her individuality. She knew she had stories to tell, but worried that no one would be interested. Nevertheless, she made the decision not to over-fictionalize or sitcom-ize them. And it worked. If we had to guess why, it’s because the most personal stories often turn out to be the most universal.
Not only did Adlon have all the material she needed, but also a timely and essential perspective. “I did not set out to make a feminist show,” she told Vulture, but “I wanted to talk about women who are aging and aging parents. I wanted to talk about girls growing up. I wanted to show these three stages developmentally. It was extremely important for me to do it in a way that felt authentic.”
When you do that, people tend to respond. GQ recognized that “The humor in Better Things doesn’t come from a barrage of tightly written jokes or sight gags. Instead it issues naturally from the show’s embrace of the complex and often contradictory feelings inherent in the act of living a life that includes other people.” Salon praised it for “revealing new possibilities for what can be achieved within 30 minutes of storytelling.”
Adlon has grown in confidence as both a writer and a director, helming every episode the second season. That’ll keep you going. And there’s this: “Certainly when it comes to my daughters and my friends, my community—I’m deeply engaged, with the good and the bad. I’m very moved by my life.” Watching, so are we.