Review: CBS’ ‘Mom’ returns as one of network TV’s most unique comedies

10.30.14 3 years ago


When I do my Take Me To The Pilots entries each summer, I try to make them an optimistic survey of the season's new network shows.
Yes, I tear a few awful pilots to shreds, but all appearances to the contrary, I'm a genuinely generous viewer of new shows, especially new comedies, since we all know that landing on solid footing is slightly easier for a drama pilot than a sitcom.
Whenever I look at a pilot, I say “What is the pilot? And what is the show it's likely to become?” And in that process, the multi-part third question, phrased in different ways, is, “What is the best version of this show and what is the worst version and which potential outcome is more likely?”
So I look at something like the “2 Broke Girls” pilot and I could acknowledge that if the show were to focus on Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs, if it were to find a clear through-line and stop wallowing in the blatant racism, xenophobia and complacent humor of the diner scenes, it might become a good show.
I watched a solid three seasons of “2 Broke Girls” before giving up on its ability or desire to become that better version of itself. Michael Patrick King and company are content with lazy stereotypes and double entendres and… That's their business. 
When it came to CBS' “Mom,” last summer I wrote, “A version of 'Mom' that I would watch would continue to keep the recovery thread as close to the surface as possible, because that melancholy shading would benefit [Anna] Faris and also benefit Allison Janney, who is fine here, but isn't asked to do nearly enough.” And I compared it to “2 Broke Girls,” as if to pre-guarantee my disappointment, to cover for my resignation.
I made a mistake and I misgauged Chuck Lorre's interests and intentions when it came to “Mom,” though “Mike & Molly” had set the template for a Lorre comedy that sanded off all of the weird, dark, human edges from its pilot and just became a broad comedy with a little heart, but almost no nuance.
“Mom” did the opposite and, in a twist that doesn't happen very often, “Mom” became almost exactly the aspirational version of itself. 
After being pushed back and shuffled around for football and also in CBS' attempts to boost “Scorpion,” “Mom” returns on Thursday (October 30) night and it's one of the oddest and, at times, most unpredictable shows on network TV. If you didn't bother watching last season or if you quit after the pilot or two, this might be a good time to check “Mom” out, just in case Allison Janney's Emmy win didn't already give you the hint. 
The b-word, “broad,” is one that critics toss around as a pejorative and network executives use as the ultimate compliment. I guess that I don't like “broad” humor because I feel like bawdy humor and simply delivered physical gags are too easy. Networks love “broad” humor because when something is broad, you aren't limiting your potential audience. I'd say that “Arrested Development” was every bit as full of innuendo and pratfalls as “Two and a Half Men,” only it's couched in a sturdier framework. But one show is a lucrative hit that has made everybody rich and the other is a cult favorite that earned a few people Emmys. 
“Mom” was and, frankly, still is broad. Or it's broad when it chooses to be comedic. It's especially broad in the restaurant scenes featuring French Stewart as an amalgamation of manic chef stereotypes and Nate Corddry being wasted on a level that confuses me nearly every week. But even the core characters get to be broad, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when you have a comedienne as gifted as Anna Faris, or a master-of-a-trades — no Jack, she — as gifted as Allison Janney. 
And the broadness turned viewers off of the pilot and has colored the way I see people respond to “Mom” in comments or on Twitter. It's still painted as a CBS comedy or a Chuck Lorre comedy and while it's both, it aligns relatively little with either categorization, despite its multi-cam trappings.
When I looked at the “Mom” pilot, I estimated maybe 5 minutes of complicated, occasionally haunted comedy I wanted it to be and closer to 17 minutes of hackiness. In its better weeks, “Mom” flips that ratio around.
“Mom” is ambitious by both CBS' standards, but also by network and even cable's more flexible standards. It's a half-hour multi-cam dramedy, a format that probably isn't unprecedented, but sure is mighty rare. 
The struggles with addiction that were the backdrop of the pilot have proven not just to be an incidental piece of the “Mom” tapestry. Faris' Christy and Janney's Bonnie are addicts and I'm not sure that there's been an episode that hasn't been about that struggle and hope it impacts everything in their lives. “Mom” may often utilize plotlines that would be one-off complications in a lesser (or even a more traditional and successful) comedy, but nothing happens without being fueled or contextualized within the life mistakes Christy and Bonnie are trying to learn from, correct and avoid. And all the while, they attend AA meetings, face temptations and even relapse. 
What's particularly impressive about “Mom” is the way that it has honored the integrity and variation of addiction while still finding character-based humor. Christy's child-like hunger for her demons is funny, as is Bonnie's animalistic love for doing wrong, but “Mom” has developed an actual community around then, while resisting a “Go On”-style support group approach. Nobody cares, but I'd always prefer that approach, especially since the foundation is already there. Mimi Kennedy's Marjorie, with her cancer fight and her history of addict experiences, has already become more developed than any sitcom character this far down the call sheet has any right to be. And while Octavia Spencer may be busy on “Red Band Society” for a few more weeks, I hope “Mom” brings her back, because her Regina, facing jail-time for embezzlement, was an instantly dimensionalized character who spent almost no time coasting on the sassiness that writers so often see as a default for Spencer. 
“Mom” isn't going to become “Go On” (or “Dear John” or any of the other myriad support group comedies) because Lorre and co-creators Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker value the multi-generational family as its heart. While Bonnie and Christy had an immediate chemistry from the pilot, it took a while for “Mom” to figure out how to take Sadie Calvano's Violet from an easy series of teen pregnancy/dopey boyfriend one-liners and situate her life choices alongside what led her mother and grandmother to be with her in a small home that proved fairly expansive when the number of crashing guests grew. 
But the writers succeeded.
Calvano grew better and the arc around Violet's pregnancy grew better when the show decided to treat that arc seriously. Some shows would have just charged ahead and made Season 2 about this house of women raising a fourth generation in “Three Women and a Baby” style. Instead, Violent contemplated giving up the baby for adoption and then continued down that path in a way that explored why a teen with her two female role models might want to break some of her familial cycles. “Mom” acknowledged the options in the adoption process, gave Violet chances for regrets and also showed how Christy and Bonnie would react. And, mostly, it was very serious in doing this, even if a late-season plotline revolved around Violet experiencing pregnancy-based flatulence at prom and that went almost exactly the way you'd expect it to. 
And then, as we neared the end of the season, the “Mom” writers sensed a missing family dynamic and introduced Kevin Pollak as Bonnie's ex and Christy's father, and adeptly dodged nearly every “wise-cracking deadbeat dad” shortcut. With a sensitive touch, the show pinpointed Christy's desire to meet her father, Bonnie's hate-and-love-and-hate for the man and the dad's confusion in the middle of things, another person trying to do right but hampered by poor decisions from his past. In only a few episodes, “Mom” got laughs from Pollak's Alvin and then earned the drama in giving him a heart attack.
[The other member of the “Mom” family is Blake Garrett Rosenthal's Roscoe. He's an afterthought and I've never said, “Boy, I wish we had a Roscoe A-story,” but he's a decent little actor. I think the show may not know what to do with him because it'd be hard to give him an arc with the kind of tonal mix that the older characters enjoy.]
Part of why the restaurant plot work so poorly and why I'm slightly baffled that “Mom” doesn't find something different and more effective for Christy to do, is that this is where the dark underbelly is least successfully integrated and where “Mom” runs the biggest risk of splitting off into two shows. The presence of alcohol on the menu is a potential trigger for Christy, and Stewart's Rudy was roped into a single chaotic plotline with Bonnie, but mostly that plot revolves around French Stewart saying inappropriate things and then giving the audience an, “Ain't I Bastard…” leer. Whatever purpose Corddry's Gabriel had at the beginning, when he was in an unlikable affair with Christy, has ceased to exist and I can't begin to tell you why Corddry hasn't been set free.
The restaurant remains and it remains unfunny as “Mom” Season 2 begins with an episode titled “Hepatitis and Lemon Zest.”
But everything I like about “Mom” remains intact and rather than de-emphasizing the emotional bumpiness, Thursday's premiere is adding more layers. For one thing, we learn about another of Christy's addictions, and while it's played initially for laughs, the premiere gets drama and tension from it as well. And just when you worry that things get too dramatic and steer in the direction of a “2 Broke Girls”-style bit of easy racism, “Mom” is smart enough to undercut the moment with the episode's funniest zinger. 
The “Mom” premiere is possibly even more invested in the AA world, as Christy's first year of sobriety leads her to try to take on a sponsorship role for a new member, played in fine form by Jaime Pressly. Christy, always marked by the narcissism of her addiction but also by the pull of her family bond, again copes with the itch to do good and the pull of her own issues.
And then the premiere also finds “Mom” moving off in a different and totally logical direction as cause-and-effect money issues stemming from last season's actions put their deceptively roomy house in jeopardy. 
It's a fiscal crisis that feels organic and is a reminder that “Mom” isn't one of those sitcoms that does a “problem” episode a couple times per season, whether it was the Keatons dealing with a relative's alcoholism or Mr. Belvedere coaching Kevin to be a gentleman and not bang the school's “easy” girl. 
A word I had to avoid over-using in relationship with “Mom” and its handling of its characters and their struggles, is “honor.” Sitcoms can go dramatic and dark if they're honoring an experience, whether it's “Scrubs” honoring the life-and-death moments at a hospital or “Roseanne” honoring the day-to-day friction of blue collar life. Many sitcoms, even broad sitcoms, have been tourists in the world of drama, but “Mom” is a full-time resident.
You can start watching “Mom” tonight, no background is necessary. The premiere is a solid example of what the show began to do well last year, while also exposing its continued flaws. I'd still recommend checking out most of last season's episodes, because Allison Janney earned the heck out of her Emmy and in addition to the episode she submitted that won her the trophy, she could have submitted three or four other episodes to boot.
“Mom” premieres on Thursday, October 30 at 8:30 p.m. 

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