Pamla Adlon tells Stylist why comedy should hold up a mirror to society.
Binge-watched Love is Blind? Completed Shrill? Smashed through The Stranger in a weekend? If you’re looking for something new to get obsessed with may I recommend Better Things? The under-the radar US sitcom is wry, refreshing and beautifully observed – and its third season, on BBC iPlayer now, has a hard-to-beat 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a comedy with heart – and a pulsating respect for women – about a Los Angeles actress and single mother of three girls, Sam Fox. Brilliant Celia Imrie also stars as Fox’s British mother Phyllis.
Sam is played by actor Pamela Adlon, who also writes the show. When the series launched in 2016, it was co-created by Louis CK. After stories of his sexual misconduct emerged, Adlon carried on without him, and the show has thrived. When I talked to Adlon, I intentionally asked her no questions about that severing of ties; she should not have to answer for his actions. Instead we discussed the power of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and not wrapping life up in a bow.
Sam represents a very authentic version of womanhood – going through the menopause, with sexual desires, whose clothes don’t always fit – but not in a traumatic way. Why do you think it’s important we have characters that hold a mirror up to us?
When I went into the show, I did not want my show to be labelled as a feminist show. I wanted it to just be the story of this person. But I have come to realise and acknowledge that people feel seen in the show, because I’m not wrapping things up in a bow. I’m not making it too sexy or too funny. Nothing is an extreme version. I think the extremes of things are what is fucking the world up right now. My show is about what life is now. When I first pitched I described it as wanting to elevate the mundane. And when you lean into that people really respond.
Why do you think we’re so hungry to see things that reflect our own experiences back at us in some way?
It’s very therapeutic. I had a hard time with my dad from the time I was 11 until I moved out of my house at 18. Yeah. My dad was a writer and in my early 20s we started working together. We would talk about things that were very painful when I was growing up and reflect on them and write them down and make fun of ourselves in the process. That was able to help us get through painful memories and look at them in a funny way.
Do you know that Sam Fox is an infamous glamour model in the UK?
Yes. [laughs] I chose it because I wanted an androgynous name. Sam and Fox are both family names. So, I just pulled from names that were near and dear to me and my mom.
You get to work with Celia Inrie, who’s a British acting legend. How is that?
She’s just the greatest. She’s so naughty and so much fun. I love her as much as I love any member of my family. All we do is take the piss out of each other. I live for it.
What popular culture are you embracing at the moment?
Parasite was amazing. I love Fleabag so much. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, wow! Crashing is so good too. And I love Catastrophe too. God damn it that’s a good show.
I once read that you said ‘When things are nice and clean around me, I feel calm’. I couldn’t relate more. Why is it important?
As you’re saying this, I’m looking at my desk, and my sphincter tightened, as I have pairs of glasses all over mine. But [tidiness] centres you. It’s such a great feeling. Wherever I work, I create an atmosphere. I adjust the lights and I bring in other furniture. It’s got to be a place that feels like a temple.
Better Things series three is on BBC iPlayer now.
Images: Maarten De Boer, BBC