Better things

Pamela and her navel

Serie. The third season of the series wrongly unknown of Pamela Adlon brilliantly illustrates the trend of today’s series for autofiction.


By Caroline Veunac

Pamela Adlon is an Hollywood actress since the 80’s. Not a star. Just a regular actress, with a résumé full of supporting roles in series (including the memorable Marcy Runkle in Californication), commercials and cartoons’ dubbing. In Better Things, the serie for which she’s the author and main actress, she relates her life of middle-aged woman juggling with crappy castings, elusive and intrusive boyfriends and raising her three daughters at the age of feminism and social networks. Except that in the series, Pamela is Sam and her daughters are played by actresses. After Curb your enthusiasm30 RockLouie or GirlsBetter Things fits in the wave of autofictions that were successful in TV comedy these last years.

Literary and cultural tradition of stand up: you wouldn't think, but Better Things mixes them both.

There was a time when autofiction was first synonymous with literature. Invented by Serge Doubrovsky in order to qualify his novel Fils in 1977, the word describes for the writer the process of relating details of his life in a framework that coresponds to the narrative form of fiction. On top: the creation of an hybrid area where the true/false limit allows to talk about privacy without self-censorship, and can even turn an anecdotal and informal register into something transgressive. In France, this sport had success on the 2000’s, at the instigation of athletes such as Christine Angot, Guillaume Dustanou Emmanuel Carrère.

From Stand Up to Autofiction

Even though great American writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Philip Roth or Paul Auster have also flirted with this literary genre, the multiplication of autofictions on American TV seems to have another direct origin: the one of stand up, this popular art consisting of relating his life on a coffeehouse theatre’s stage. By the way, this trend was initiated by Jerry Seinfield, who played his own role of New-York actor in the sitcom Seinfeld right from the end of the 80’s, and his mate Larry David, playing his bad-tempered double in Curb Your enthusiasm. And many of the best recent TV autofictions are directed by stand up actors. The genre’s fallen star, Louis C.K, at the purgatory because he was untimely masturbating in front of his feminine colleagues, made his own autoportrait of average guy in Louie. The great Tig Notaro, who became part of the American legend after openly talking about her breast cancer in a set, relates in One Mississippi her life of democrat lesbian in the conservative deep south bayou. The genre was spread to England, where the Londoner Phoebe Waller-Bridge faces camera to depict her daily life of cynic and depressed urbane in Fleabag (we wait for the French adaptation with Camille Cottin).

In order to extend and multiply this tradition of one woman show on TV, TV comedy had to change its style. Feeling hemmed in sitcom in studio like Seinfeld, autofiction blossomed in 30 minutes dramedies in real setting. Maybe because this format is both more realistic and more cinematic, then more favorable to the creation of a gap where the narration sounds true while coming under a projection. In this context, autofictions stand up as the legacy of Woody Allen cinema, where the author and director is also the one who plays in a fantasmatic version of his own life.

Literay and cultural tradition of the stand up: you wouldn’t think, but Better Things mixes them both. Pamela Adlon’s series, old friend of Louis C.K. (who produced and wrote the episodes of Better Things), can be seen as the twin sister of Louie, especially in its way to explore the parenthood’s depths. But its story of feminine tradition (Pamela Adlon also has an eccentric mommy) brought to the daily life’s little events also connects her to a universal family of writers who wanted to translate in literature their status of women. Under Pamela Adlon’s pen, but also under  Christine Angot’s, Annie Ernaux’s or Joan Didion’s distinc pen, formerly shameful and insignificant topics come through. Relationships between women, motherhood, female sexuality -these slightest things to the eyes of the world- are a source for fiction without losing their authentic dimensions and act as a manifesto.

Get round industry’s sexism

Born in literature thanks to Colette or Duras, adapted in cinema (Agnès Varda), or in contemporary art (Sophie Calle), this counter-culture turned into something dominant throught TV fiction. In front of “high concept” series, (more or less) autofictional comedies allow contemporary female writers to explore their own experience in their name and with their voice. Issa Rae (Insecure), Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project), Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City), Natasha Lyonne (Russian Dolls currently on Netflix)… They are more and more to take advantage of this tool. It’s also, really practically, a way to cope with unemployement by getting round the industry’s sexism. In a context where it’s hard for a woman to find a leading role, it’s easier to create one’s own vehicle and take the controls. Because autofiction is all the more blamed for narcissism when it’s made by a woman, Better Things won’t be the exception. Pamela Adlon, soft and cheeky ball of energy, is actually narcissist. But while talkin about herself and her narcissim, she’s also talking about all the others. Better Things found the counter-intuitive secret of successful autofiction: what’s private is universal.