When “Better Things” premiered on FX last September, it came off as a placeholder for “Louie,” with creator/star Pamela Adlon channeling the angst of her mentor and executive producer, Louis C.K.
“Louie” has yet to return to the air, but in the interim, “Better” has forged its own identity thanks in no small part to Adlon firmly taking control. She directed every episode of the current second season, which has been brilliant in dealing with Adlon’s character, Sam Fox, an underappreciated mother who’s barely holding it together.
The Emmy-nominated star chatted recently about what makes “Better” one of TV’s best series:
Q: Each episode opens with John Lennon’s “Mother,” which is perfect. How did you get the rights?
A: That was actually a big deal. I wrote a very “Jerry Maguire”-like letter to FX, pleading for them to get the use of the song, which was way more than my budget. I also wrote a seven-page letter to Yoko Ono and included a video package, telling her how much that song meant to me and my daughters. I took my kids to see Yoko’s band once and there was one of her films playing in which there’s a naked woman with a fly buzzing around her private parts. People were uncomfortable that my kids were there, but I told them to relax.
Q: On the show, Sam’s kids don’t seem to care about their mother’s success as a performer. Is that a reflection of real life?
A: It’s veiled in the truth. I think the big thing parents need to learn is that you have to give up on your kids rooting and cheering you on. It’s really about them. I throw that bit of advice around all the time, but sometimes I don’t remember it myself.
Q: One of the things that’s great about the show is Sam isn’t always likable. What do you think of her?
A: Really? You don’t like her? I don’t see it that way. I see her being giving to others. Maybe some of her qualities are a little unsavory. I think you get a sense of how hard she works and the level of devotion she has to her family and her mother, even though she’s done some pretty crappy things to Mom, but in the end decides to take care of her.
Q: What was the biggest difference between the two seasons?
A: It was a massive learning curve. This season was smoother and so much easier because everything was flowing through me. I know what I want to see and what I want to hear and what I want in every frame. You’ve got to have confidence. It’s easier running my show than raising three girls in real life.
Q: What did you learn about doing it all from Louie?
A: You have to conserve your energy and sometimes rest on the ropes. When I’m driving the 25 miles to work, it’s of more value to drive quietly and listen to Top 40 music than to call my friends and catch up. That’s unfortunate, but if I did, it would exhaust me.
Q: Who else prepared you for this balancing act?
A: I did an episode of “The Tracey Ullman Show” about 20 years ago. She was a mom and I was a new mom then. She told me it’s her mission to get home in time to put her kids to bed. She had to make a decision on building a catwalk and she chose the shorter option without compromising. I’ve been on so many sets where an enormous amount of time and money are spent and it’s bone-chilling. I told my crew, “I’m not going to scrape the marrow off your bones. There’s no reason for us to do that.”
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431
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Better Things ★★★★ out of 4 stars
When: 9 p.m. Thursdays.
Where: FX. Season 1 streaming on Hulu.