There have been any number of shows about single parents raising rambunctious kids. But Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” (FX, 10 p.m.) goes a step further, creating a realistic portrait of an actress and comedian trying to raise a trio of daughters in a semi-normal way.
Besides her part in “Californication,” Adlon’s known for being a co-star in Louis C.K. comedies, “Lucky Louie” for HBO and the groundbreaking “Louie” on FX. C.K. is also the producer here, directs the first episode, and though there is a feminist bent to a lot of the series, he writes quite a bit of it. I’m willing to bet, for example, that he wrote the speech about periods in the second episode. Just as a way to stretch.
Even if he didn’t, Adlon and C.K. obviously share a comedic point of view based in everyday life such that some things that are sad or mysteries will remain so. That only makes the comedy more welcome when it comes naturally. Plus they must have shared the same casting director in finding a trio of smart, defiant and ultimately loving daughters in Mickey Madison, Hannah Allgood and Olivia Edward, who happen to be unlike any other young women on TV (except for the pair on “Louie”).
There is some great music on the series too — maybe the best in any current TV show. The theme is no less than John Lennon’s “Mother” from “Plastic Ono Band.”
With what must be a guiding hand from C.K., the series is very well paced, playing a longer story about life overall while creating some wonderful scenes such as one where Lenny Kravitz plays a director who comes over for dinner, or a sitcom team that casts Adlon as its star only to have the network remove her — all while Adlon’s character is clueless (though her manager can see it coming).
There’s a beautiful episode about the 16 year old who suddenly sees she won’t be able to get in the college she wanted, who thinks she’s ruined her life and a mother who scrambles to make her feel better about life.
And all the time there’s a kind of dotty English woman (Celia Emrie) playing her mother, tottering on and saying the wrong thing.
That may sound like a sitcom trope but that, too, is based on real life, Adlon told reporters at the TV Critics Association summer press tour last month.
“My mom is a little 80 year old English lady, from Cheshire,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to have a real English person to play my mother, somebody who could be formidable, and then a little fluff. So I just got the best of all possible worlds with Celia.”
As for the daughters, Adlon said, “I have girls, so that’s my wheelhouse.
“When I was first coming up with the idea for the show, it was really hard for me. I was blocked. And I was talking to Louis about it. I’m like, I could come up with ideas for him all the day long, and then when it came to me, I stopped. I’m like, ‘Where’s the dad? Did he disappear like Olivia Newton John’s husband? Yeah. Let’s do that one.’
“I always knew that telling a story about girls at three different stages developmentally was very interesting to me,” she said.
And presumably her own daughters are as precocious as those on screen since, she added, “my middle daughter is like, ‘Who is playing me?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not you. It’s a character. Her name is Frankie on a television show called “Better Things.”’
“‘Mom, who is playing me?’ Like, really. And now my middle daughter and this one are best friends,” she says, pointing to Allgood. “She lives in my house. And they all adore each other. They’re excited for these stories to be told because it feels like they have a voice.”
Still, it’s not as if every episode spills her own family’s secrets.
“I’m very aware of things that would be too personal, and my daughters know that I wouldn’t co-opt their lives. But, you know, my dad would always say, ‘Write what you know.’ And all my daughters are writers.”
So, Adlon says she observes what happens at home, but she’s less obvious about it — sometimes.
“I don’t walk into a room and go, ‘Wait. Hang on. I’ve got to go write what just happened.’ Although I do that with my mother. She walks into the kitchen, and I just get out a pen, and I say, ‘Go.’ Because I know it’s just going to be material for me right now. And then I don’t get quite so irritated, you know. I’m like, ‘Oh, this is going to be good. Okay. Tell me about the Neighborhood Watch meeting, Mom. Let’s go.’”
But with the laughs comes the harder stuff. And that’s fair game too.
“I just I feel like everything is funny in life in my life, and there is a lot of funny in the darkness,” Adlon says. “So I guess I like things that just feel real, and I like I don’t like anything that’s dark without a heart. So in terms of categories, it’s like what we talked about with ‘Louie’ and all those other shows, that I just feel like there’s really no category, you know, for this kind of thing.
“It’s not comedy or dramedy,” she said. “It’s like The Incredible Feelings Show.”