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Why Better Things Is One of TV’s Messiest Shows (On Purpose)

"All the mistakes are the stuff of life," says creator/star Pamela Adlon

Better Things Pamela Adlon Interview
Better Things (FX)
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    Pamela Adlon wishes her toilet worked. Not the toilet in her home, but the toilet seen occasionally on screen in the home of her Better Things character, LA-based actor Sam Fox. “Only when we had that super toilet in that one episode, did it flush,” she tells Consequence. “But I want everything to work. It has to be authentic all the time — everything.”

    Authenticity is a key part of the FX comedy, which ends its five-season run later this spring. The series, created by and starring Adlon, chronicles the ups and downs of Sam’s world as she tries to provide the best life possible for her eccentric mother Phyllis (Celia Imrie), and her three daughters Max, Frankie, and Duke (Mikey Madison, Hannah Riley, and Olivia Edward), despite all the frustrations they might inspire.

    While many creators find different paths to that goal of authenticity, in Better Things, there’s one magical word that best captures the show’s approach: Mess. Under Adlon’s attentive eye (since Season 2, she’s directed every episode of the series), the Fox home is warm and open, but also cluttered and untidy — while built on a soundstage, it feels like a living place.

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    “I think that’s part of what makes the show the show,” says Olivia Edward. “The reason it gets so much love is that this show shows things that other shows, usually we just skip over. Like, that’s the part that we don’t want to show them, because they have enough of that in their life. But sometimes you need that because it’s relatable.”

    “The mess of the house and the mess of the rooms — I think navigating all of that creates a certain energy in the background of all of the scenes,” Madison agrees.

    Adlon’s approach in this regard extends beyond the production design to every aspect of the series, from production to post-production. “Life is mess, it just is, and so that’s what you have to fight when you’re making my show in particular — you don’t want to have everything be neat and wrapped up in a funny bow,” she says. “That’s just the way it is and you want those mistakes. You want to be doing a dance sequence and someone falls and bobbles. You don’t want things to be perfect, because then a robot made it.”

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    The show’s fifth season continues its intimate, detail-oriented approach to capturing Sam’s world, while digging a little deeper into Sam’s family history and heritage (even managing some international travel under pandemic conditions) — all leaning on the tone and style Adlon has established over the past few years, one which savors the unexpected and surprising.

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