“Timex Indiglo, bitch,” says Pamela Adlon.
Adlon isn’t wearing her Timex with Indiglo backlight. She’s holding it aloft like a torch in her post-production office in Sherman Oaks, demonstrating the survival utility of its electric-blue glow. “I fucking love Indiglo,” she says. “I have doomsday, end-of-the-world needs. If shit jumps off, your Apple Watch isn’t gonna be able to do this.”
On her wrist, Adlon—the journeywoman actor and voice actor turned TV-show auteur—is rocking a white Q&Q Quartz, Japanese, clean, classic. It’s on a custom-made leather cuff strap beefier than a strip steak. You’ve seen it if you’ve watched her award-winning semi-autobiographical show, Better Things, which starts its fourth season March 5. Adlon wears it on camera all the time, along with other watches from her own personal collection, which she’s just plunked down in a large display-style box on an office table right next to the fresh fruit spread.
“I didn’t know I was being a watch collector while I was doing it,” she says. “I just feel naked if I don’t have a watch on.”
She picks up a Rolex Datejust “Thunderbird” Turno-graph. “The Rollie,” she says. She rotates its hulking rose gold bezel. “I admit I don’t know why this thing turns, but I like it.”
Here’s her other Rolex, a delicate, beautiful little thing, the first that gave her the collecting bug. Her voice—smoky to an entertaining degree—quiets. “This is a solid gold ‘66 Oyster Perpetual,” she says. “Ugh. It feels so fucking good.” She strokes it. “Oh baby. Yeah baby.”
“I gave it to my daughter a few years back for her twenty-first birthday. Maybe I’ll take it back, I think,” she says.
Her Hermes, she admits, is fake. “She’s got the one I want,” she says, pointing at her friend and publicist Kelly Bush Novak. “I’ve worn a fake one ever since I saw hers, I loved it so much.”
“Hint, hint,” says Novak.
Adlon picks up a watch with a cherub printed on its dial—a Divine Time, by Relic. “I actually gave this to Erica Sterne,” a co-producer of the show, she says. “It’s the little black angel! You can have your watch back now, Erica!” Adlon yells across the office.
“She’s a good boss,” Sterne tells me later when I ask about the gift. She laughs. “And my baby is half-black, so it might have something to do with that.”
Then there’s the watch—a TAG Heuer Formula 1 Adlon has owned for “twenty-four, twenty-five years” that she wears even more often on the show than that Q&Q or the fake Hermes. The TAG’s dial is so orange you can’t look away; its black bezel is toothier than a tiger shark. “There’s nothing precious about it,” she says. “But it’s very precious to me.”
For me, this bright orange watch is part of Adlon’s character in Better Things, Sam Fox—a lowkey cool, near-unflappable mom of three girls who occasionally must howl at our world’s bullshit. That’s Adlon’s intention.
“The show is obviously super personal,” she tells me. “It’s the way I am. My clothes, my aesthetic. It’s the colors I like, it’s the music I like, it’s the art I like. I put all of that into it. Because it worked for this story. Because Sam Fox is kind of me.”
GQ: This TAG is the watch I first noticed you wearing on the show.
I just think it’s so cool that you saw my watches. What if you showed up and I didn’t own any of the watches on my show?
Non-watch nerds don’t go around wearing that kind of thing.
I’m very loyal to this watch. If you notice, the front door, the doormat, and this other thing on the wall, it’s all orange. I like Halloween, and this is Halloween orange. I love a watch that you don’t have to worry about—because I cook so much, I wash my hands, I swim in this watch, I do everything in it. I never have to take it off.
This Nixon is on the show all the time, too.
Tony Hawk and his wife Catherine are friends of mine, and [Hawk] does a thing with Nixon. This one’s completely black. It’s kinda hard to read. I love these janky little watches. They’re not expensive. There’s nothing precious about any of my watches.
Given how superstitious you are in the show, I thought at least one or two would be a good-luck charm, or something.
You know, I try not to hold onto things as talismans too much. Because I lost my dad’s ring on set. It kills me. I look at the frames of the show. And that’s the ring! And it’s on my hand. It kills me. So I try not to hold items too preciously. Because when you lose them, you get killed.
I do little things for myself. My youngest daughter just got her first car. She has a patch in it that’s an embroidered strawberry. So I got in the car and I rubbed the strawberry for luck.
She says, ‘Mom! Why did you do that!’ So now every fucking time she’s in the car, we rub the strawberry, and we spit three times on the back of our finger. It’s just one of those things. I have so many of those.
This is an awesome watch.
That’s the Baume & Mercier Catwalk.
How’d you get it?
Someone threw it at me.
No, it was a gift.
Who gave it to you?
What watch do you wear when you’re balling out? What did you wear when you won the Peabody?
My first Rolex—the 1966 Oyster Perpetual Datejust. That was a significant investment. It’s solid gold, and it’s just a gorgeous piece. It feels so good.
[She picks up the watch, then puts it away] Momma’s gonna put you back in your little crib now.
Would you wear an Apple Watch?
That would fuck me up. It would flash, and I’d be like, “Oh shit! High speed car chase.” “Oh, my daughter is driving to Huntington Beach.” I couldn’t do it. There’s gotta be some separation, otherwise we’re all just data.
What was your first watch?
It was a Mickey Mouse watch on a thick cuff like [the Q&Q]. Probably my parents got it for me. I’ve always worn a watch, and I’ve always worn my watch on my right wrist, which is incorrect. You’re supposed to wear it on the opposite of your writing hand.
Any idea why?
I like it on my right hand. My dominant hand.
Have you always worn your own watches on camera?
I was working as a hired gun actor for so many years, and hated putting on other people’s things. Watches were important for me. I would always want to choose my watch for my character, in every show or movie that I did.
It’s so funny, because when you’re doing shows, watches are covered by the props department. And I’ve always thought it should go with the costume department.
It’s not a prop! It’s your clothing. It says a lot about you.
There’s this thing—men’s watches, women’s watches.
Oh, fuck that. Yeah, not at all. There’s no men-women things anymore anyway. That’s done. We’re done with that.
There’s a storyline about gender fluidity in your show. Sam’s daughter, Max, tells Sam that her other daughter, Frankie, is a boy.
Oh yeah. Sam is this woke fucking edgy cool mom. And Sam’s like, “What the fuck?”
That puts a lot of pressure on me as the director, to have Frankie “assigned” a gender. And I stuck to my fucking guns, and I said, “This is not what this is. There’s a difference between gender and sex.” And so I kept her fluid in the show.
It was called androgynous when I was growing up, but I was a fluid kid. And my kids are all fluid kids. It made me crazy that [with Frankie’s character] people were like, “Well, what is she?” “Is she transitioning?” “Is she a boy?” “Is she gay?” Fuck off. She’s twelve years old.
The show feels very much like a mosaic of moments rather than linear A, B, and C storylines.
That’s the only way I know how to do it. Part of the show is that this shit just keeps happening. Because it’s life. I’ve always said that the logline of the show is “Life is what happens to you when you’re too busy to make any other plans.” It’s really true. As a parent of three, and as a single parent of three, it’s like ninja stars are flying past you all the time. You don’t really have control.
That’s the way I love to tell stories. I don't put a button on it for people. It’s up to your interpretation. That’s what’s resonating with people. They don’t wanna be fucking told how to feel, they don’t wanna be told who that is. Is that person trans? I’m not saying anything.
One of the best tips I ever got is that the stuff you leave out is the most important. That space is where people think about things.
That space is everything in my show. I learned a lot about writing from a show I did called King of the Hill. Which you wouldn’t think—because cartoon animation. But there was space. There was air. Even just the guys in the alley drinking beer, just goin’ “Yup.” “Mhm.” That’s fuckin’ awesome. That’s the way we live life anyway.
In one scene in your show, Sam just watches her daughter do ballet.
I love putting in those moments. There’s another ballet scene this season as well. It feels like an Alan Parker movie. I really wanted to see Sam enjoying her kids. That’s what the whole thing is about. You’re really enjoying what you have, being grateful for what you have. Because the world is so fucking crazy.
[Spits three times on the back of her hand and knocks wood.]
[I spit three times on the back of my hand and knock wood.]
Look, I make everybody crazy!
Have you or your kids ever seen a ghost?
Oh, yeah. We all got the shine.
What do you see?
I had a picture with me and a spirit in my friend Tara’s apartment when I was nineteen or twenty years old. She took a picture of me, and the guy who lived in the apartment before is sitting on the bed with me.
And the girls have seen spirits in our house. They were freaking out so much, I had a psychic medium come to my house, and he did a reading with them. I based a scene in the show on it.
This medium came over and said, “In the first place, there’s nothing negative here. Because if there was, I would’ve thrown up when I walked in.”
What kind of stuff was happening? Bad feelings? Doors opening and closing?
Everything. Feelings, doors, the dining table. The medium also said, when girls are in puberty, there’s a high psychic vibration—shit swirls around adolescent girls. I had three of them in the house. The chair in the dining room moved. We would hear it. And I know all of them saw it move.
So whatever. We’re fine.
You must have a really good ‘camera eye’ for catching things in the world and translating them into the show.
It’s the way I’ve always looked at my life. I’ve always experienced my life as more of an observer. Even though I’m very engaged in everything, I’m looking at everything. I used to do it with my Super 8 camera attached to my eye. Then my Super VHS that I fucking carried around. For years! Like I was on an episode of Network or something, like I was a news cameraman.
You would just shoot everything?
Everything. It fucked me up because I recorded everything. The baby wasn’t being born if I wasn’t recording it with my camera. And so this show is the perfect manifestation of all those moments and feelings and everything in my life. All those videos, all the stuff I was writing down, I was able to translate them into the show.
What are you most excited for in season four?
There are certain things that are vintage Better Things moments. And there are certain moments [between Sam and her kids] that are revolutionary for a mother. They can be very small—these tiny little revolutionary acts.
So often in the show, it seems like these moments happen when Sam’s stressed out and exhausted, and her kids don’t care, and they ask a lot of her. And she just gives herself to them.
I showed a scene like that between Sam and Frankie to Celia Imrie, who plays my mom, and she said, “You know what mate? I wish I had been that way with my son, Angus, my boy.”
The idea is, with family, if you just get out of your own way—if you don’t think, “I can’t, I’m too tired”—your life is gonna change. I feel those things are revolutionary. It’s just a grace note, a life lesson, couched in a television show.
Chris Wright is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Originally Appeared on GQ