TV Notes/Q&A (Cable)
Better Days for ‘Better Things’ With the Women in Charge
By Aisha Harris, The New York Times
- Feb. 21, 2019
Season 3 of “Better Things,” beginning Feb. 28 on FX (10:00 p.m.)
, feels like the long-awaited return of an old familiar friend.
Sam (Pamela Adlon, one of the creators) continues to come to terms with aging; Sam’s oldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison), has boy troubles; Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) bicker and deal with puberty. Sam’s mom, Phyllis (Celia Imrie), ignores her steadily declining mental health.
The show, a semi-autobiographical depiction of Adlon’s life, is still silly, touching, absurdist, invigorating. The ’60s and ’70s pop/rock throwbacks can still pack a gut punch at the right moment. (The first episode ends with Sam and Frankie reading “A Raisin in the Sun” aloud together over Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind.”)
But these episodes almost didn’t happen: Near the end of Season 2, in 2017, a New York Times article profiled several women who accused Louis C.K., Adlon’s longtime writing partner and the co-creator of “Better Things,” of sexual misconduct.
C.K. later admitted the allegations were true and was removed from the show as a producer. “Better Things” had already been renewed for a third season before the allegations came to light, but Adlon initially told John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue: “My heart wasn’t in it,” she said recently.
“He said to me, ‘Well, I’m not going to force you to do anything, but I want you to do your show. I want you to.’ And he never pushed,” she continued.
Adlon opted to proceed, though not without some anxiety about being the sole person in charge of the show after sharing those duties with C.K.
“It was scary, and I’d never been in a writer’s room before, let alone run one,” she said.
“The things that I didn’t think would happen are: I survived, I wrote 12 drafts of television, I shot 12 episodes of television and now I’m finishing post [production] on them.”
In a recent phone interview, Adlon and the actresses who play her daughters — Madison, 19; Alligood, 15; and Edward, 12 — reflected on the benefits of working on a set “loaded with women” and their relationships with one another, onscreen and off.
Then, after the girls left the call, Adlon talked about the subject everybody asks about, which also happens to be the thing she least likes to discuss: Louis C.K. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How have your dynamics on set changed since the first season?
There was always a sense of freedom, creatively, on this particular set, and as time has progressed, I feel like even more so. We’re able to come up with ideas and take liberties.
Once you’ve spent this much time with your cast and crew, you kind of become a family.
When we wrapped Season 1 and we were doing [the last scene when we’re driving] on the freeway — when we finished, do you remember what happened?
We were all crying.
It was very emotional. I met some of them when I was 15, and I’ll be 20 in March. I feel like I’ve known everyone for so long, and just that first season, I would wake up every morning just so excited to go to set. I still do.
It killed me. I was getting emotional every time we went back out onto the freeway, when Mikey would go to play the song, “Only Women Bleed.” We were listening to it and singing along to it, which of course heightens your experience. I kept having to cover my mouth with my hands, because I was sobbing. Oh, God, it was so intense.
When we realized that it was a wrap, we all stood there in a heap just bawling. And Mikey and Hannah were like, inconsolable.
One of the themes you’ve always dealt with on the show, but especially in Season 3, is aging and how it can conjure up the past. Do you think a natural part of growing older is having to deal emotionally with things that feel unfinished?
You know how they say, right before you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes? You’re reflecting on your life, if you’re lucky enough to take the time and slow down and be in that kind of place. I’m at a place where I’m asking my mom lots of questions about the past, because I don’t want her to forget, you know? I want the information now. You’re unpacking memories and experiences, and I have the great opportunity to put a lot of that in my show.
In one scene this season, Sam chats with an older man about his late wife while on set shooting a zombie movie.
Oh, God, I love that you brought up that scene, Aisha. It’s one of those scenes that, when we’re coming down to the wire and we’re losing time, it’s like, “Well, does this really push the story forward?” Because we only had a few days to shoot in Pomona and I was like, “I have to shoot this scene.” This conversation was so important and beautiful, to just see this man reflecting about his life. You’ve got a whole lifetime of memories, and he says, “Well, it feels a little short to be a whole anything.” But that’s what life is.
There’s also what you’ve called your “#MeToo response,” when Sam decides to speak up about the dangerous working conditions on the movie. Have you had conversations with each other around #MeToo, and what it means to be women or young girls in this industry?
Because I’m still a minor, I still have a parent on set. And our set is really, really safe anyway, and I feel so comfortable there, that I really haven’t felt unsafe at all. And I love our cast and our crew; it’s just a really good environment.
Before we started filming this season, there was a meeting for all the adults, and I was included because I was 18. We had a big seminar with the entire crew before we started —
It was a two-hour HR meeting.
It was interesting and also kind of sad, because they were saying things like, “This is inappropriate, and you cannot do this to a co-worker,” giving examples. It’s so heartbreaking that this happens to people on set. Pamela, your show has been the first set that I’ve pretty much ever been on, and the show is about women, for women, with incredibly supportive people surrounding me. I’ve always felt very loved and protected throughout this entire experience.
The girls are luckier now, because it’s a time where everybody is being watched and everybody’s on point. They have to be on point. You know, I wasn’t so lucky. I started when I was young a long time ago, and people were still getting up to stuff. So that’s why I was able to put this in the show this season, of taking the production out to task for being abusive with people’s time and potentially hurting them.
Are there any moments from this season that are your favorites? Olivia, you get to hurl a bunch of expletives in one episode.
I love every time someone brings this up, because it was something that I would never be able to do. It was a funny scene, and I had to try very hard not to start laughing. I will say: I memorized my lines in advance.
Oh, she was so ready.
How much did you practice?
I actually didn’t practice. I think I just memorized it, and I remember laughing the entire time, reading. Once I got up to that scene, I started on the floor laughing, because it was just so funny.
Season 3 of “Better Things” was announced right before the Louis C.K. revelations came out. Pamela, what was your vision for the season at the beginning, and did it change once you knew he was no longer going to be a part of it?
When I was shooting Season 2, I would get ideas. I would be like, “If we get a Season 3, I should do this or that.” So I’m always scribbling down and having thoughts about places that story could go. But when the article came out, my “White Rock” episode aired the same night, which really [expletive] sucked. Because that was a beautiful episode, and it just kind of got lost. And then the gorgeous “Graduation” episode aired the following week.
My head fell apart, because it was kind of a cataclysmic situation. So for me, it was about rebuilding, putting my head back on. He can’t be a producer on the show, you can’t write this show with him, but his name’s still on the show as a co-creator.
I had to kind of start over with everything. I got an attorney; I never had one before. I have now a business manager; I had to change accountants. I had to think about making a writer’s room.
So, where did I want to go with this season? What I really wanted to do was say, “Sam’s a mess. Max is a mess. Phil’s a mess. Frankie’s a mess. Duke’s a mess. Sunny’s a mess.” I wanted to see these women kind of unraveling. I wanted [the theme of the season to be about] the changes of your life, and honoring that. Which is very much kind of a vintage “Better Things” thing.