Magazine article Variety

Never Been ‘Better’

Magazine article Variety

Never Been ‘Better’

Article excerpt

ON THE COFFEE TABLE IN PAMELA ADLON'S SUNNY SHERMAN OAKS OFFICE, WITHIN EASY REACH OF HER COMFORTABLE, BLANKETSTREWN COUCH, IS A BOOK OF PHOTOGRAPHS BY VIVIAN MAIER.

Maier, who worked as a nanny in Chicago for years, took the art world by storm when her work came to light a few years ago. Unknown before her death (her negatives were discovered after she died in 2009), she was keenly interested in all kinds of humans, from homeless people and children to shoppers and socialites. Her uncontrived images grab the viewer in part because they don't traffic in sentimentality or cliché.

The same can be said for Adlon, creator of FX's "Better Things," which returns Sept. 14. After a critically acclaimed first season, she has gone full auteur. Not only did she serve as showrunner and star once again (earning an Emmy nomination for best actress in a comedy), but she also directed every episode of the extraordinary second season - making for an even fuller, richer, more emotionally resonant experience.

Last year, she says she and executive producer Louis C.K., with whom she writes the show, were simply trying to "find the voices" of the characters. "Now," she says, "we're following them and going down longer roads with them."

"Better Things" tells the story of Sam Fox, a woman fighting for scraps of autonomy despite the time-consuming roadblocks in her path. Three of those stubborn and fascinating obstacles are her daughters - Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward) - who never stop intentionally and unintentionally challenging their mom. Her eccentric ?- English mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), lives nearby and can always be counted on to pop over and say something perceptive - or completely inappropriate.

It's a lot to contend with. But the most difficult limitations for Sam are often those imposed by a world that wants to constrict who she is and what she can be. With "Better Things," which is as irreverent, spontaneous and ferociously empathic as its creator, Adlon has broken free of many of those limitations.

"It's like an artisanal cheese of a show," Adlon says, given the handmade quality of each half hour. She credits FX for its "hands-off" approach. "They just give a subtle and helpful note every once in a while," she says. "It's like being on 'Project Runway,' and Tim Gunn comes over and arches an eyebrow and says, 'I like what you're doing here.'"

FX Networks CEO John Landgraf says he's been moved by the show - and surprised as well. "I feel like I've come to understand things about being a parent and about being a mom from watching this show that I didn't understood before," he says, "even though I have three kids and I'm married and I was raised by a single mom."

Aesthetically and thematically, "Better Things" fits right in with the most acclaimed half hours of the moment. But the fact that Adlon's show is built around domestic settings and has a largely female cast means that it's nothing short of radical.

TV comedies about a woman raising kids simply don't look like this. A fan of chunky boots and weathered jeans, Sam drinks, swears, takes up space - and she doesn't apologize for it.

"My show is my flaws and the weird things about me that have kept me going - and also kept me from achieving," Adlon says.

At one point in the new season, Sam, fed up with her daughters' ingratitude, pushes them to hold a fake funeral for her and tell her why they'd miss her. In another episode, Sam unloads on a date who doesn't realize how needy he is. It's like listening to a foulmouthed and hilariously truthful aria. That moment hints at another revolutionary stance: Unlike most mainstream film and TV narratives, "Better Things" assumes that settling down with the right guy might add to Sam's problems, rather than solve them.

"I'm so curious how men are going to react to that episode," Adlon says. "They're going to be like, 'She's fucking crazy'"

And while most family-centric TV episodes - in both drama and comedy - tend to conclude with some form of rote sentiment or cloying closure, Adlon resolutely refuses to offer up any sort of happy ending. …

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