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‘Better Things’: Pamela Adlon Ran Her Set Like a Mother and Created One of TV’s Best Seasons to Date

IndieWire visited the Season 2 set of "Better Things" to see Pamela Adlon direct, but discovered her own personal "heaven" instead.

Better Things Season 2 Pamela Adlon, Olivia Edward, Hannah Alligood, Mikey Madison

“Better Things”

Pamela Littky/FX

Pamela Adlon strides out to greet her guests, arms spread wide in a warm, welcoming gesture that runs contrary to her inner exhaustion.

“Earlier I asked, ‘Is it the day kind of midnight yet?’ because I couldn’t remember the word for ‘noon,'” Adlon said, a small smile on her face and a slight crack in her voice.

Adlon is tired, and understandably so. It’s day number 20 of a 39-day shoot, just past the midway point of production on “Better Things” Season 2. Being that it’s May in the Valley, spring ended weeks ago, and the 88-degree heat is boring down on everyone — including the small group of reporters invited to set, as well as the director, producer, showrunner, and star, who’s been here since at least 8:45 a.m.

“I’m in heaven right now,” Adlon said. “I could do this every day.”

Even with the heat, long days, and occasional amnesia for common words, Adlon is in her element. She is constantly being pulled in various directions. She’s wearing multiple hats. She’s doing more than anyone who’s not in the same position can imagine, and she loves it.

This is her family, and she is one proud mama.

“People would say, ‘How do you do Bobby Hill’s voice?'” Adlon said a few months later during a sit-down with IndieWire. “It’s just in there. It’s just a part of me. Because I’m a mother in this show, and I’m the mother of my show, it’s kind of a natural thing. Everybody calls me ‘mommy’ and I would say, ‘come to mommy’ to all of my crew and everybody. It’s just a very organic kind of feeling.”

BETTER THINGS "Arnold Hall" Episode 8 (Airs Thursday, November 2, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Nicole Wilder-Shattuck/FX

Arriving at the set, it feels like Adlon is taking care of us. Umbrellas are passed around to protect onlookers from the desert sun. Waters are handed out as Adlon apologizes for keeping us on the front lawn. “I’m sorry I can’t get you inside,” Adlon said. “It’s so small in there.”

Despite cramped quarters, the crew on set is notably calm. There’s no yelling, running, or tension. Part of that could be because Adlon keeps things lean — using lots of handheld cameras and keeping space free from big equipment — but her inclination to look out for everyone helps foster a unique kind of serenity. 

“We’re pretty relaxed, mostly,” Hannah Alligood, who plays Sam’s middle child, Frankie, said. “When we’re doing something extremely emotional and intense, then we’ll be aware of people’s emotions and won’t push it too far. Most of the time it’s really fun, chill, and relaxed.”

As Adlon goes back inside the hot Altadena house and starts shooting the episode’s opening scene, it’s easy to see why.

Directing four actors who sit around a small table, Adlon stands next to her cinematographer, Paul Koestner, and offers encouragement or gives choice notes after each take.

“Love it. I love it!” Adlon said after one run-through. “Hal, you look good.”

“OK, I’m excited,” she said before starting the next round.

When one of the actors stumbles over her line a few takes in a row, Adlon remains cool as a cucumber.

“It’s OK!” she said, casually. “We do it all the time!”

“Cels,” Adlon said, shortening Imrie’s first name to sound like “seals.” “Do that again. Really emphasize that part,” and Adlon said the words she wants Imrie to hit a little harder.

“It’s fabulous,” Imrie said from the set. “We’ve gotten to the stage where we can be quite rude to each other.”

BETTER THINGS "Phil" Episode 5 (Airs Thursday, October 12, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: (l-r) Celia Imrie as Phil, Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Jessica Brooks /FX

That kind of security is absolutely vital to telling the stories Adlon wants to tell. Not only does trust between director and her actors benefit the performances, but there are young actors on set working with complex material in sensitive situations.

“My character is scantily clad in some scenes, and it’s not meant to be sexy,” Mikey Madison said, who plays the eldest daughter. “She’s just walking around the house in her underwear in a house full of women. [Adlon and the producers] make it really comfortable for you. There’s a professional undertone to all of it.”

Adlon aims to create a safe environment for everyone around her and isn’t afraid to ask for additional privacy for select scenes.

“When we’re shooting at the house, I like to keep every area of the house alive that I can,” Adlon said. “I clear the house out all the time. I’m ruthless. When we were shooting the ‘Eulogy’ episode [Episode 6], I wouldn’t let anybody be in the house because it was very intimate, and the girls and I were in there. Their parents were gracious enough to step outside and let us have that.”

“It’s incredibly fun! It’s like — really fun,” said the series’ youngest star, Olivia Edward. “You do the scene and when it’s over, everyone will just have a smile on their face. They might give you a correction, but then they’ll say something funny.”

As an actor first, this kind of positive communication and understanding comes naturally to Adlon’s direction.

“I’m so excited that I’m a director now,” Adlon said. “I never had the ambition to be a director because […] I could have never imagined that I could do it. To be able to do it, it makes me think back to all of the directors I’ve worked with and how the actors I’ve worked with made such great directors.”

When Adlon starts a scene, she doesn’t say “action.” She says, “Whenever you’re ready.” It’s not a command as much as it’s an invitation, even when she’s a part of the scene.

“It’s very collaborative for me,” Adlon said. “I have to look at playback and check everything, [and I’m] never too critical of myself. Like [I don’t] look at myself and say, ‘Oh God, I look so old in that shot,’ or ‘Jesus, I wish I had said it like that.’ I can’t be that indulgent because I’m there and I’m caring for everybody else’s time.”

“She’ll go until she’s got what she wants [but] she knows so specifically what she wants, that it cuts down on time,” Imrie said. “Her energy is remarkable.”

Better Things Season 2 Pamela Adlon Episode 6

When Phil’s scene wraps, Adlon thanks and applauds her crew, but the day is far from over. She’s moving on to the next thing, the next task, the next scene, but now — nearly six months later, as new episodes are airing — it’s clear that her production has created something special. “Better Things” Season 2 has received unanimous critical praise. FX renewed it quickly for a third season, and there are still three episodes left to air before it wraps.

“To me, it’s the greatest gift to be making this show and to be doing this job. Like with everything, you don’t just wanna punch a timecard. You want it to make an impact. I like making people feel things. I like inspiring people and elevating people,” she said.

“I’m so inspired by this season of television that I’m presenting,” Adlon said. “I’m fucking shitting in my pants — I’m too excited.”

After speaking to reporters for a few shaded minutes on set, Adlon is pulled back to to the house. She’s got 19 days left; five more episodes; half a season.

“But did I get everyone?” she asks the group. “Was I a good mommy?”

Even to the distant relatives who only stopped by for a visit, the answer is obviously “yes.”

“Better Things” Season 2 is airing Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX. 

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