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Actress Pamela Adlon Says 'Better Things' Is Dedicated To Her Daughters

Adlon's FX series is based on her own experience raising three girls as a single mom. Her daughters are very much a part of the show, she says. Originally broadcast Sept. 6, 2016.


Other segments from the episode on September 8, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 8, 2017; Interview with Pamela Adlon; Review of TV show "Top of the Lake"; Review of film "The Unknown Girl."



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest Pamela Adlon, along with Louis C.K., created the FX comedy series "Better Things." Its second season premieres Thursday. "Better Things" stars Adlon in a role drawn from her own life as an actress and voiceover artist who's also the single mother of three girls, two of them teenagers. In the series, she's doing her best to maintain her career while trying to do right by her kids, who often resist her and create mayhem. Fans of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie" will now Adlon as his friend and sometimes-girlfriend Pamela. Adlon was also a producer of that show and played Louis's wife on his first series, "Lucky Louie." She won an Emmy in her voice work in the animated series "King Of The Hill," as the adolescent boy Bobby Hill. Terry spoke to Adlon in 2016. They began with the opening scene from season 1 of "Better Things." Adlon's character, Sam, is at a shopping mall with her youngest daughter, who's around 9. Sam's sitting on a bench, looking at her phone and kind of ignoring the daughter, who's crying and tugging at Sam's arm. A woman sitting at the other end of the bench stares at Sam disapprovingly. Sam looks at the woman and says this.


OLIVIA: (As Duke, crying).

PAMELA ADLON: (As Sam) Hi. Do you want to buy her the earrings? Because that's why she's crying - because of $6 earrings that - she has them at home already, but she wants them for right now. So you should go into that store and buy them for her because I'm not doing it. Or Stop looking.

OLIVIA: (As Duke, crying).

ADLON: (As Sam) You want hot dog on a stick?

OLIVIA: (As Duke, crying).


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Pamela Adlon, welcome to FRESH AIR. So...

ADLON: Thank you.

GROSS: ...I'm sure a lot of this series comes out of your life, and I'm sure, like probably all mothers, you've been in the position of feeling like you're being judged by somebody you don't know because your child is crying, and they think that you're being cruel to her (laughter).

ADLON: Oh, yeah. It's - you know, that was just a fatal thing that happened to me when I was a new mom, and I just always was trying to, you know, compare myself to other people. And, you know, feeling insecure about, you know, my kids or what they were doing or how I was being, you know, looked at.

GROSS: And how did you get over that?

ADLON: I had two more.


ADLON: Survival and realizing that, you know, just I don't need to be a room mom every freaking year in school. It's fine.

GROSS: So, in a way, the audience for your show is going to be like the woman on the bench watching you and your kids or your character and your character's kids, and you're worried that we'll all be passing judgment on your parenting based on this series?

ADLON: That's funny. That's funny. No, I'm not worried. I'm not worried at all. I'm proud of it, extremely proud of it. And, also, I feel like it's inspiring when you see somebody do something that's complicated. So I feel like we're helping people (laughter). That's what I'm hoping for.

GROSS: So this series is a collaboration between you and Louis C.K. You're both executive producers. You've co-written some episodes. You kind of alternate who directs them. There's another director, too. So in Louis C.K.'s first show, "Lucky Louie," you played his wife. On his second show, "Louie," you played his on-again-off-again, kind of crazy girlfriend...


GROSS: ...Who's also a single mother in it. So how did he end up producing a show with you loosely based on your life?

ADLON: Well, it was several years ago. I was still working on "Californication" and "Louie" and doing, like, my animation stuff and, of course, raising my girls. And he said that John Landgraf, the president of FX, had said, we want to create a show for a woman. Do you have anybody that you'd like to pitch? And Louis said Pamela. And he told me, and I was like, are you crazy?

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: I can't do that. I'm doing this and that, and I got the girls and, you know - so, you know, it was percolating. And I would, you know, go through the days and do other jobs, and I would think, I could do this. Like, I know how to do this and maybe create a show and run a show. Do I want to do it? And then the desire came in. And then, you know, having to take care of life and take care of other obligations - and then, eventually, I had to start saying no to certain things so I could pioneer this moment of my future, which is right now. And, you know, it took me longer than even just writing it because I got caught up in binge-watching "Breaking Bad" before the finale.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: So it totally screwed me time-wise. That probably took, like, six months or something. And...

GROSS: Well, you used to be roommates with Anna Gunn, who was Bryan Cranston's wife on "Breaking Bad."

ADLON: That's right.

GROSS: So I imagine you had a very special interest in the series.

ADLON: We did. We lived in a house in Laurel Canyon. It - that's so funny (laughter). We did. She was my first lady kiss on stage, too.

GROSS: Oh, really? (Laughter).

ADLON: Yeah, but yeah - so I went through that and then just - we started the process of writing. I was trying to think of what would be a show for me - not my life. There's no way that that's something that I would do. And then I'm like, well, what am I going to do? Am I going to, you know, like, work at a Jiffy Lube or, you know - this is my wheelhouse. So my life became, you know, the bones of my show, you know, the frame of my show. And then kind of it got fleshed out by the actors that I cast and the stories that I was able to tell. I'm able to tell some stories that are mine from my childhood and some of my friends' from their childhood. And some are my own daughters'.

GROSS: You know how a lot of presidential candidates say before they decide to run for office that they have to talk with their family and take a vote in the family about whether they should run or not?

ADLON: Oh, [expletive]. I should've done that.


GROSS: Did you put this to a vote with your children about whether it was a good idea for you to play a mother with three children similar to the fact that you have three children?

ADLON: At first, I was being very protective of them in terms of what I was doing and the material. I was guarding the project, and I was guarding my actual children so that my kids didn't feel like they were being co-opted or that anything was besting them, you know? But, eventually, they started getting involved. And they helped me cast the girls. And they put their votes in, and I would run material by them that was appropriate. And yeah. They - they're very much a part of it. The show is completely dedicated to them and all that they do. And the show really gives them a voice and their friends. You know, it's an incredible gift that I've been given.

GROSS: So let's hear another scene from the first episode of "Better Things." And in this scene, you're in the car with your oldest daughter, who's 15. Her name is Max, and she's played by Mikey Madison. And so out of the blue, she tells you that she wishes you smoked pot.


MIKEY MADISON: (As Max) I wished you smoked pot, mom.

ADLON: (As Sam) What?

MADISON: (As Max) It would be good for you. Stoners aren't losers, mom, and it would mellow you out.

ADLON: (As Sam) I'm perfectly mellow.

MADISON: (As Max) Can I ask you something? You know what? Never mind. You'll just freak out.

ADLON: (As Sam) OK, you don't have to, but now you know you're going to.

MADISON: (As Max) Could you get pot for me?

ADLON: (As Sam) What?

MADISON: (As Max) Gaby Schuster's (ph) mom told her if she ever wanted to smoke pot, she'd get it for her. Like, don't you want me to have clean, organic pot? You should want me to have good nugs.

ADLON: (As Sam) Good nugs? I don't even know what to say. (Laughter) That's amazing. I don't know how to get pot. I don't even know where to get - Gaby Schuster's mom said that to you? OK, that's great. I can't even get Gran pot for her arthritis. How about this? How about this? No. No, Max, I'm not going to get you pot.

MADISON: (As Max) It's so easy, mom...

ADLON: (As Sam) Sorry - oh...

MADISON: (As Max) You get a prescription. You just have to...

ADLON: (As Sam) Oh...

MADISON: (As Max) ...Be 18.

ADLON: (As Sam) Max, honey, can we just go back to the regular hard things, like school supplies?

MADISON: (As Max) You should be happy I'm honest with you. I could just get it and not tell you.

ADLON: (As Sam) Oh, yeah, well, that might be a little better.

MADISON: (As Max) Seriously?

ADLON: (As Sam) Yeah. These things are normal, but you should be ashamed of them.

MADISON: (As Max) Why? You're - you're my mom. I want you to know if I have sex or if I want to get high.

ADLON: (As Max) Ahh, no. Hide things from me, please.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's hilarious. So tell us about writing that scene.

ADLON: Well, that scene might not have been so difficult to write.


GROSS: Because...

ADLON: No names, no names - you know, it's - you know, in terms of telling these stories, developmentally, this is something that was going on with a lot of kids around my daughters and my friends' kids. And so I wanted to kind of, you know, show what happens when there is an open dialogue, and maybe the parent doesn't want it to be so open (laughter). It's a little scary.

GROSS: I love the way the daughter is using both guilt and a sense of parental duty to try to get you, the parent, to...

ADLON: Works every time...

GROSS: ...To buy pot for her (laughter).

ADLON: Works every time. It's your duty to give me something that's clean for my body which I'm probably going to do anyway. No, no, please don't put that on me.

GROSS: You know, in this series, the daughters - the two older daughters - just really speak so rudely to the mother. I mean, they insult her. They totally mess up the house when she's away and don't even bother to clean it up. So would you let your kids talk to you that way or get away with that kind of thing at home?

ADLON: Would I let them?

GROSS: OK, that's the thing, right. Can you stop them?

ADLON: Yeah. It's - you know, I used to say to my girls, oh, my God, if my father were here...


ADLON: ...And you were me, you would get - I mean, a belt, a spanking. And they just look at me like, are you insane? Do you think that means anything to me? It's just, like, such empty threats. When the kids are, like, fine, you know, put me in a time out, then they get too old for timeouts, what do you do? Take away their computer. You can't take away my computer, mom. I have so much homework, and it's all on my - on the internet, which is true. I mean, they get you on every level.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: It's maddening.

GROSS: So - OK, I'm asking this as somebody who's not a parent. How do you stay in love with your children when they are mean to you and try to manipulate you, and they behave thoughtlessly? How do you get over...

ADLON: Well...

GROSS: ...That emotionally, those periods?

ADLON: It's - I don't think - well, in the first place, you can go in and out of love and still love somebody, you know? You may not like them so much on the day, but, you know, it's - I can tell you that I don't think I've ever been so vulnerable or been so angry in my life - like, those two emotions, like feel so hurt or so enraged, as when you're dealing with your kids. This is just every single hot emotion you can tap into. And then the highs are incredible. You know, if you push through a particularly difficult time or situation, the gratification is staggering. It's staggering. But it - you've got to put a lot of currency into that bank for that to pay off. parenthood.

DAVIES: That's Pamela Adlon, the star and cocreator of the FX series "Better Things," speaking with Terry Gross. "Better Things" starts its second season on Thursday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Pamela Adlon, star of the FX series "Better Things," loosely based on her life as a single mom. She co's co-created with Louis C.K. Better things kicks off its second season on Thursday.


GROSS: So give us a sense of what the process was. When you and Louis decided to start this new series "Better Things," where did you start? Like, what were the first questions you had to ask yourself?

ADLON: Well, I found myself really just not being motivated to write for myself. You know, I'm kind of more like a team player and a supporter. So it was fairly easy for me to come up with ideas for "Louie," for his show and things like that. But, you know, when it came to me talking about my show, like I said, I was like, OK, let's make another kind of profession. And maybe I have, like, a Chinese daughter and, you know, like, a son from Africa. And...

GROSS: Were you just assuming that your own life is boring, and therefore you can't draw from it? Other people's lives...

ADLON: Exactly. You know, it's just one of those things. You're like, what? But, you know, at the same time, you know, my life is extraordinary because it's so normal. But it's so extra for some reason. You know, I always would get a sense like when my daughters and I are together and we're walking, it sometimes feels in my head like we're "Reservoir Dogs."

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: It's just the four of us, you know, and I see it in slow motion. And, you know, and it - they're completely captivating - my daughters. And they're all individuals, and they're just incredible. And their story's incredible - and so interesting to me to tell the story about three girls at different stages developmentally - not really put into the conversation, where's the dad? You know, because that's not really the story to me. The story is this family. This is what this family is.

And, you know, it's just this one woman who has no zone defense raising these three girls. And then there's the mom, you know, her mother, who lives across the street. So coming up with that concept was, you know, kind of a lightning bolt. Like, dummy, just write what you know. And then, you know, Louis and I used to always - and we still do writing exercises together - so we said to each other, OK. I said, I've got an assignment. You write a scene that you think sounds like the voice of my show, and I'm going to write a scene. And let's call each other at the end of the day and read our scenes to each other. And so that's what we did, and he wrote a scene that was, you know, me in the park at soccer, and I pick up a kid in the van full of kids. And we turn around, and nobody knows who this kid is. And it was funny and everything.

And I wrote a scene for a bunch of my girlfriends, like a girls' night out, which really had nothing to do with - there were no kids in the scene, but there were mothers in the scene. And so we read them to each other, and he said to me, that's it. That's the voice of your show. You keep going in that direction. And so I just kept writing scenes, essentially. And a thing that Louis always said to me is, forget about story. Forget about story. Put that out of your head right now. You just keep writing. And, I mean, you know, I am the daughter of a writer, and, you know - and I grew up as an actor. But my writing voice was really nurtured and guided by working with Louis all these years.

GROSS: Why was he telling you to forget about story?

ADLON: Because it would be like, you know, instead of saying, OK, this episode is about Sam has a problem at the dentist, and then she goes to the thing. And then her daughter comes in and says something. That's not the way we write. It's just about elements and details and then putting it together. And then when I have all these wonderful scenes and scenarios, then I put them together, and a story becomes itself.

GROSS: Yeah. The child goes to the dentist, and mayhem ensues is your standard blurb - episode blurb on an old-school network sitcom.

ADLON: Sure. Yeah, yeah. But it was very valuable. It was a huge thing for me to realize that, you know, I, you know - because I would say, what happens here? What happens here? OK, just forget about that. What's the next thing that happens in her day? Or what's the next thing that happens, you know, to the kids? And this is the way this show got created. It's just - for me, it was a very organic kind of, you know, non-formatted way to create something.

DAVIES: That's Pamela Adlon speaking with Terry Gross last year. Adlon stars in the new FX series "Better Things," which she created with Louis C.K. The second season premieres on Thursday. After a break, we'll talk about her voiceover work for cartoons and for "King Of The Hill." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Pamela Adlon, who stars in the FX series "Better Things." The show's loosely based on her life as a single mother of three girls. She co-created the show with Louis C.K. "Better Things" kicks off its second season on Thursday. Pamela Adlon's also done a lot of cartoon voice work and had a big role in the animated series "KingOf The Hill." Here's a clip from an episode that earned her an Emmy. She played 12-year-old Bobby Hill. He's kind of a pudgy kid - good-natured - who gets pushed around a bit at school. In this episode, Bobby wants to enroll in a self-defense class. But it turns out it's a women's self-defense class. The first voice we hear is the instructor.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Are you sure you're in the right class? This is women's self defense.

ADLON: (As Bobby) Please, Miss, all the other courses are full.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I'm sorry. It's for women only. We're trying to maintain a certain comfort level here.

ADLON: (As Bobby) But I hate men as much as you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) I don't hate men. I just hate being a victim.

ADLON: (As Bobby) I hate being a victim, too. Look, I was at a girls' slumber party last night when three men pushed me to the ground and made me eat dirt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) OK. You can stay. Now grab a whistle and prepare to be empowered. Most women who are attacked are subdued by verbal threats. Today, we're going to get used to hearing these threats, keeping our cool and practicing some responses of our own to the most vulnerable areas of a man's anatomy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Shut up and give me your purse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, yelling) I don't know you. That's my purse.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) OK. I want everybody to try it - you first. See? I don't hate men.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Give me your purse now.

ADLON: (As Bobby) That's my purse.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Don't be afraid to shout it. (Yelling) That's my purse.

Try it again.

ADLON: (As Bobby, yelling) That's my purse. I don't know you.


GROSS: When did you realize you could do voices? You've done a lot of, you know, cartoons as well as, I think, advertisements, you know, commercials.

ADLON: Yeah. I - you know, it's funny because I tracked it to one of the first times we came to California. One of my dad's, like, cronies had this recording studio, and he needed a little girl to do a radio spot for him. So he asked my dad to bring me in when we were here in California visiting, and I did like a little voiceover for something. And I played a valley girl, which - I didn't even know what that was. I somehow got cast in a commercial. And I didn't have a commercial agent as - you know, I did when I was a little girl. But I didn't later in my teens and my 20s. And somehow, I got cast in a Jack in the Box commercial, and I ended up doing it. And I did one of those, you know - I coined a phrase in the commercial. It was like where's the beef? But I said - I told those guys, do it with chicken.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: Now people are going to look that up. This sucks. So anyway, I was really excited to do it because William Fraker, the great cinematographer, shot that commercial. And so a man named Paul Doherty who's with Cunningham - CESD. I can't say all the names. He heard my voice, and he brought me in. And he said, read this copy. And I said, but this is for a boy. And he said, just trust me. Read it. And it was a 7-Eleven spot. And I was to play this boy Kevin talking to his dad. And so he said, OK, you're great. I'd like to represent you.

And so he sent my audition out, and I booked it. And it was the first thing. And it was this 7-Eleven campaign that went on for several years. And I just worked in radio for a long time, and I knew about animation. But I just could not get my foot in the door. And then I finally started booking some animation jobs. And I just - that was heaven. It was heaven. I did a - you know, did a bunch of "Rugrats" back in the day, and I would look at E.G. Daily and, you know, Cree Summer and Chris Cavanaugh - rest her soul - and Kath Soucie. And I'd be like, oh, my God, this is my jam. I got to do this. And so I started doing animation. Then I could not get arrested in radio anymore. It seems like you either do one thing or the other. I don't know too many people who can cross over.

GROSS: When you say radio, do you mean radio ads? Because...



ADLON: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: So how did you find the voices that you're capable of getting for animation?

ADLON: There's something in my voice tonally that's like a boy. So, you know, I started, you know, being able to do boy voices and to be known as having a naturalistic boy tone without pushing it. Like, you know, like from the old days like, you know - like, the Rankin/Bass boys who would be like, gee, Mom, I have a lollipop. Although, I do do some of those sometimes, but, you know, I just started to kind of - I would say they would call me the cleaner because, like, I would replace boys who were real adolescents, and their voices completely changed. And they couldn't do the voices anymore. And then, you know, it just - it was great.

It's just one thing led to another, and then I was, you know, at 20th Century Fox one day, and I walked in. And it was just a regular voiceover audition, and they handed me the sides. They said, he's a 12-year-old boy from Texas. And I was like, man, I wish I watched "Badlands" last night or some reference, something in my brain, but, you know, I just - I went for it.

And then, you know, I went back, and I remember auditioning for Greg Daniels, and there were all these sketches on the wall. And he said, I hope you don't think I'm rude, but I'm going to turn away from you, and I'm going to look at the sketch of Bobby Hill while I'm listening to you. And so that pretty much was it for me...

GROSS: This is Bobby Hill on "King Of The Hill" which...

ADLON: That's right.

GROSS: ...Was on for - I don't know - like, 12 years or something. It was on a really long time.

ADLON: Yeah. We did 13. And so...

GROSS: And your voice, as far as I could tell, kind of stayed the same during those years.

ADLON: Yeah. Well, I didn't go through puberty.

GROSS: Yeah, well (laughter).

ADLON: Been there done that.

GROSS: But voices do tend to get older.

ADLON: I went through pregnancies.

GROSS: Yeah, that's true.

ADLON: I went through three pregnancies as Bobby.


ADLON: Yeah. It's something else. It really is.

GROSS: Will you do a little Bobby voice for us?

ADLON: (Imitating Bobby Hill voice) Well, Terry, I just want you to know that I admire you so much, and I would like to take you to Benihana if you ever come to Hollywood.

GROSS: (Laughter). So what Texas accent did you find for that, since you hadn't watched "Badlands" the night before the audition?

ADLON: You know, I just - (imitating Bobby Hill voice) I mean, I just came up with - I was just like, OK, you know, one of those.

I feel like, you know, in terms of dialects, my mother used to always - when she would tuck me in, I would ask her to do different dialects. Because she's English, she would do Scottish and English and Irish and Australian, and it was one of my favorite things that she would do for me. And she would say the name of the world's - the longest name of a town in the world, which is, like, in Dublin or something. Like, (unintelligible) - something like that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ADLON: And she would just do things like that for me. And I am convinced now that that's what planted that seed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Pamela Adlon. She's an actress and voiceover artist. And now she stars in her own series, which is called "Better Things."

Your character in the series is an actress and voiceover artist, and there's a lot of roles that she's passed up for in terms of acting because she's not considered, you know, glamorous or, like, pretty enough. She's kind of flat...

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Chested, so, like, she's not...

ADLON: Thirty-two B.

GROSS: Have you heard that during the course of your career?

ADLON: Oh, my God. I mean, well, I would be in an audition and sitting in the waiting room with my sides, and, you know, going over my sides, you know, really concentrating. And, you know, once in a while, you get to a place, and there's a very thin wall or door, and you can hear the people doing your same scene. And I would just, like, throw my pages in the air and say, why am I even practicing? I got this, but I ain't going to get this. Like, it would just be - you know, because the person would be, like, cool and blonde and, you know, would maybe not be able to bring something that I would, acting-wise. But, you know, it's just - it's a part of the whole thing.

GROSS: Have you found your profession to be very frustrating in that respect?

ADLON: Well, it used to be far more - I think it's changed a lot, a lot. I mean, there's just so many different kinds of people and faces and things that are being represented now. But, you know, I grew up in a time - that I started out and I went up for commercials. And basically, I booked a Barbie commercial, which - I was out of my mind because Barbies were like Jesus to me. It was everything. I was so happy, I can't even tell you.

And I get to the set, and my heart is racing. And it was for a Barbie perfume maker. And I met the director, and then there was this, like, cute blonde girl there. And I was like, oh, cool, we're going to be like chocolate and vanilla. Me and the blonde girl are going to be friends in the Barbie perfume maker commercial. So basically, I found out that they had hired me - the director said come over here. And he said, do you know how to walk like a Charlie Girl? You remember the...

GROSS: The Charlie perfume commercials...

ADLON: ...Ads for the perfume?

GROSS: Yeah.

ADLON: Yeah.

GROSS: It's, like, very...

ADLON: And I...

GROSS: ...Sophisticated and fashionable.

ADLON: That's right. And he said, so I want you to walk like a Charlie Girl. And I want you to pass that man, who's playing the mailman. He was dressed like a postman. And he's going to smell your Barbie perfume maker perfume, and he's going to be - wow - he's going to make a face. And you turn your head like - and you toss your hair over your shoulder and you give him a wink, like, yep, that's my perfume. I made it. And I was like, no problem. And so I did it.

And the director was standing next to the blonde girl, and he said, OK, now you go do that, what she did. And so that was my job on that commercial. I wasn't in it. I was the girl who taught the blonde how to walk like a Charlie Girl.

GROSS: That's really funny that you were the one who could act and had to demonstrate for her. But you didn't look the part.

ADLON: Yes (laughter).

GROSS: That's great.

ADLON: That's right (laughter).

GROSS: I want to wish you good luck with the series. I think it's great.

ADLON: Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I'm so glad you have it. It's been great to talk with you again.

ADLON: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Pamela Adlon speaking with Terry Gross last year. Adlon starts in the FX series "Better Things," which she created with Louis C.K. "Better Things" kicks off its second season Thursday. Coming up, John Powers reviews season 2 of the Sundance TV mystery series "Top Of The Lake: China Girl." This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed filmmaker Jane Campion took the plunge into television with the 2013 series "Top Of The Lake," starring Elisabeth Moss as an Australian police woman in New Zealand. Moss is back and is joined by Nicole Kidman for the show's second season, titled "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," which airs over three nights beginning Sunday on SundanceTV. Our critic at large John Powers says the series takes you places cop shows usually don't go.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 1970s, it was considered groundbreaking when Angie Dickinson starred as sexy but tough Sergeant Pepper Anderson and in "Police Woman," the first television series about a female cop. Since that time, TV has given us lots of women officers, from Helen Mirren's flinty inspector Jane Tennison, battling squad room sexism in "Prime Suspect," to Mariska Hargitay's empathetic New York detective Olivia Benson, who's been solving sex crimes on "Law & Order: SVU" for the last 18 years.

Women cops are now so routine that just to register, a show needs a striking new angle. You get it in "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," the terrific second season of the TV series created by filmmaker Jane Campion, who made "The Piano," and her co-writer, Gerard Lee. It starts airing on Sunday, September 10.

And if you didn't see the first season when it came out in 2013, here's what you need to know. Elisabeth Moss from "Mad Men" and "The Handmaid's Tale" stars as Robin Griffin, a spiky police detective from down under with a troubled past and an unerring taste for unreliable men. In season one, set in the idyllic New Zealand countryside, she got sucked into a case about a missing girl, child abuse and macho cops, who may or may not be corrupt.

As season two starts, it's four years later. And Robin has moved back to Sydney, where testosterone still runs high in the police force. When an unknown Asian woman's body is found in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, she's assigned to the case, along with the warm, goofy officer Miranda, played by Gwendoline Christie, beloved as the noble Brienne of Tarth on "Game Of Thrones." It all sounds simple enough, but before you know it, the story expands to follow Robin's seeking out the daughter, Mary, she put up for adoption after being raped at 16.

Now a teenager herself, Mary, played by Campion's real-life daughter, Alice Englert, was brought up by a married couple, Pyke and Julia. They're now getting divorced because Julia - that's Nicole Kidman, complete with frizzy gray hair - has moved in with another woman. Meanwhile, Mary has gotten involved with a dodgy German named Puss, who claims to be an ex-professor, but actually works at a brothel. Kidman's Julia is freaked out by her daughter's rebellious behavior. And here, she fights about it with her husband.


NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Julia) I know you blame me. I just wish you would say it. It's in the freaking head, Pyke. It's bloody unhealthy.

EWEN LESLIE: (As Pyke) I don't blame you. We've got a situation, and I just want to deal with it.

KIDMAN: (As Julia) Yeah, we sure do. What's happened to our baby? What's happened to her? I honestly think she would kill me if I got in her way. She'd kill me.

LESLIE: (As Pyke) She's a kid. She's confused. That is normal. We just need to...

KIDMAN: (As Julia) That is not normal. I'm not going to stop. Don't tell me to stop.

POWERS: Now, unless you've never seen a mystery before, you realize that it's Robin's mission to pull together the story's diverse strands - the dead body, the adoptive daughter, the brothel, the argument you just heard, et cetera - which may make "Top Of The Lake: China Girl" sound like business as usual. And it might be in other hands, but Campion is a fierce, cussedly inventive artist who's still the only woman filmmaker ever to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

Rather like David Lynch in "Twin Peaks," she uses the expansive freedom of TV storytelling to create something that's visceral, off-kilter and obsessive, with occasional moments of clunky acting that may or may not be deliberate. Rather than serve up straight-ahead action, Campion braids together a murder mystery, cultural sociology, offbeat comedy, family psycho drama and striking imagery.

Her highly personal, deeply ingrained feminism shapes everything from Robin's tricky relationship to men, to the handling of police force sexual politics, to the digressive satirical moments when young men sit around reading prostitutes. In fact, alone among the world's major filmmakers, Campion's work is all about women and their psychosexual lives, the torment of the teen years, the struggle to become an artist, the price of a bad marriage, the allure of dangerous men.

This new season digs deep into a theme unusable for a cop show - motherhood. Robin's hunt for a killer becomes an exploration of mothering in its many aspects - maternal instinct, genetic inheritance, adoption, the yearning for children, the hiring of surrogates, even the choice not to be a mother. Talking about the dearth of women directors, Campion once remarked how strange it is that we aren't getting the point of view of half the world, especially when that half gave birth to the whole world. In "Top Of The Lake: China Girl," we do get that point of view, and the result is the mother of all cop shows.

DAVIES: John Powers writes about film and TV for Vogue and "Top Of The Lake: China Girl" begins Sunday on SundanceTV. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "The Unknown Girl." This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. The acclaimed Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have twice won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. They were most recently at the festival last year with "The Unknown Girl" about a young doctor trying to solve a murder mystery that lands at her doorstep. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Even if you've never seen a film directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, chances are you've seen one that bears their influence. Unflinchingly observed, shot with intimate hand-held cameras and grounded in stark working-class environments, their exemplary social realist dramas have left their stylistic imprint on pictures as different as Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" and Andrea Arnold's "American Honey."

But what sets the Dardennes' movies apart is their consistent moral vision and piercing emotional honesty, their understanding that the most gripping stories are born not of narrative contrivance but of human desperation. Every one of their films is a thriller of conscience and an action movie in the truest sense, not because the characters are armed and dangerous but because even their smallest actions are shown to have unpredictable and often shattering consequences.

That simple truth is made startlingly clear right at the beginning of the director's absorbing new film "The Unknown Girl." The story follows a young doctor named Jenny Davin, played by Adele Haenel, who works at a small clinic in Seraing, a Belgian factory town where most of the Dardennes' films are set. When we first meet Jenny, she's seeing a few patients along with her intern Julien, played by Olivier Bonnaud.

It's after 8 o'clock at night and the two are exhausted. So when the door buzzes, Jenny orders Julien not to answer it. We don't think much of this brief, seemingly throwaway exchange. But the next morning, a police detective comes around with news that an unidentified young black woman has been found dead on a nearby riverbank under circumstances that suggest foul play. Surveillance footage confirms that shortly before her death, the girl approached the door of the clinic, frantically rang the buzzer and then ran off when no one answered.

If I'd opened the door, she'd still be alive, Jenny says. And while no one blames her for ignoring an after-hours visitor, the doctor feels a deep sense of personal guilt. While the police go about their investigation, Jenny begins playing detective, determined to find out the dead girl's name so that her family will at least know what happened to her. She starts showing the girl's photo to each of her patients and asking if they recognize her.

None of them does, though she soon realizes that at least one of them is lying in a clever twist that makes ingenious use of her medical expertise. The Dardennes are known for getting superb performances from their actors. And Haenel, who was 26 when the film was shot, is no exception. This is some of the subtlest, most empathetic acting you'll see in a movie all year. Jenny's calm, by-the-book manner with her patients might strike you as a bit too chilly and reserved at first.

But that knowing professionalism is precisely what they find so comforting. As Jenny keeps up her persistent line of inquiry about the dead girl, making the rounds at her patients homes and at one point visiting a cybercafe in one of Seraing's African immigrant communities, most of the individuals she questions brush her off. But a few of them find, in spite of themselves, that they want to talk.

More than once, the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality offer them the liberating seal of the confessional. I first saw "The Unknown Girl" last year at the Cannes Film Festival, an event where the Dardenne brothers are basically rockstars. They have twice won the top prize, the Palme d'Or, for their films "Rosetta" and "L'enfant." And they rarely leave the festival's awards ceremony empty-handed.

But the reactions to "The Unknown Girl" were uncharacteristically disappointing. And the Dardennes, citing the mixed reviews, decided to trim the film by seven minutes before theatrical release. Truth be told, I didn't notice much of a difference when I viewed the new cut last month. And in any event, I don't think a slight shift in running time could solve the movie's problems or obliterate its very real virtues. With its vividly inhabited world of industrial buildings and nondescript apartments, "The Unknown Girl" is as persuasive in its realism as any of the Dardennes' earlier works.

If there's a reason it doesn't earn a place among their masterpieces, it's because the directors, in making their first full-on genre piece, have ironically neutralized the element of surprise. Forcing their usual ethical query into the structure of a whodunit, the Dardennes have emerged with a narrative that, as compelling as it is, can also feel prosaic and even a bit predictable, especially in the overly aggressive melodrama of the closing scenes.

Some might further question the effectiveness of a movie that frames a harrowing story of black immigrants' suffering from a perspective of white liberal guilt. Though I would counter that the sense of moral impotence and the desire to be rid of it is the movie's true subject. There's something deeply moving about how seriously the Dardennes regard Jenny's profession and the way they link it to a higher social calling.

A good doctor must listen carefully, ask the right questions and diagnose the human condition itself. True healing, the film reminds us, is a matter of not only the flesh but also the spirit.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. On Monday's show on the anniversary of 9/11, we talk with first responder John Feal, whose foot was crushed by an 8,000-pound piece of steel at ground zero. He became an activist and lobbied Congress for health care funding for first responders. He says many of them have died from illnesses or injuries they sustained responding to the crisis.


JOHN FEAL: About 2,000 people have died because of their illnesses. They too are heroes.

DAVIES: Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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