Written by Matt Haviland
Chuck Lorre is the Seth McFarlane of CBS. He wants nothing less than total domination, and the series premiere of Mom wears his stamp without apology. As Lorre’s fourth simultaneous CBS sitcom of the season (Mike & Molly’s fourth season has been delayed until 2014 to make room), Mom has a mean-spirited, shallow edge that feels a lot like Two and a Half Men. But a conspicuous amount of onscreen bodily fluids bring its pilot episode beyond sex jokes into the turbulent realm of emotional depth. The minds behind Charlie and Alan Harper have been sneering away the persistent myth of “feelings” for too long to be subtle about grief, but as a sign of good faith to their audience, the title-mother Christy (Anna Faris) and her daughter Violet spend much of Mom’s first episode in tears.
Anna Faris has been on television a few times before (notably playing “herself” on Entourage), but the best approximations of Faris’s career are her wacky breakout role in Scary Movie and her brilliant Lost in Translation cameo (as the ditzy movie star who can’t get over working with Keanu Reeves). She’s no dramatic heavyweight, but Faris is talented, and well-aware that she usually plays the film version of throwaway girlfriend characters on Two and a Half Men. But after her failed NBC pilot from 2005 (Blue Skies), she brings shocking emotional resonance and comedy to her leading role on Mom.
There’s a divide here between good and generic actors. In the first scene, waitress Christy cries through her shift at a fancy restaurant. What seemed like irritating jokes in the promos become a masterful string of belly laughs when Mom gives Faris room to breathe (one customer asks, “Are you alright?” and she says, “Some days are better than others”). But when she goes into the kitchen, Chef Rudy (French Stewart) inspects food and delivers three bad lines in a row, reaching for “dry humor” and stopping at “monotone.” The laughs continue when Faris is confronted by her floor manager Gabriel (Nathan Corddry), who announces that one of his waitresses is having a nervous breakdown. She asks, “Is it Jennifer? … Is it Carol?” in a potentially weak joke that evokes laughter through Faris’s devoted performance. Then she tells Gabriel that she just wanted to be a psychologist, but now she’s working at a fancy restaurant, and Gabriel says that she still has time to improve herself. This is the first hint that Mom could be a relatively deep show. As we’ll see, Anna Faris is game if Chuck Lorre is.
The rest of the episode creates fertile ground for storylines. Christy comes home to find a Tarzan of a teenager jumping through her daughter’s window. She goes inside and holds off on confronting Violet (Sadie Calvano) before just going for it, while revealing her own personal failings. Where the motherly sentiment of “You ruined my life for being born!” would be played for laughs in a shallower sitcom, it hits on deeper emotion here. Christy takes the next afternoon off to see her son Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal) in a school talent show, following a great little character moment with him the night before (“It’s okay, I’m not good, anyway,” Roscoe says). She discovers that it’s scheduled for another day. Then Christy goes to her Alcoholic’s Anonymous group to find her own deadbeat-but-sober mother Bonnie (Allison Janney). During a bitter lunch scene, Bonnie announces her close Facebook relationship with Violet, and then Christy leaves in a huff, saying she’ll never forgive Bonnie for being a bad mother. But Christy has been unavailable to her own children–and to convince Violet that she’s willing to change, she calls Bonnie bearing a tearful forgiveness-monologue that ends with a Xanax joke. Though Faris displays real emotion behind the burlesque overacting that this scene requires, Violet says that she has to try harder to prove her authenticity. Behind lots of canned laughter, the audience says the same thing.
The difference between Mom’s success and failure is the amount of emotional leeway it gives its actors. When a good actor giving an excellent performance is surrounded by less talented actors working with a crappy script, everything feels weirdly magical. Think Betty’s audition scene from Mulholland Drive. Sometimes the shoddier a script becomes, the more flattering it is, as long as cast members are given room to act like human beings. Chuck Lorre and Gemma Baker’s script often resembles Two and a Half Men: brainless humor about sex and substance abuse with seething contempt for the audience. But there is honesty here, however clumsy. Anna Faris has (just) enough warmth to make us care about her relationships with her children, and when Bonnie ends the episode by saying, “I almost forgot–your daughter thinks she might be pregnant. Call me if you need me,” we are shown the possibility of a real character arc for everyone involved. Will Chuck Lorre allow them to evolve?
Even a great actor can’t transcend jokes we’ve heard before. There are plenty of moments where Faris falls face-first into cliches. Other characters live there. Allison Janney is given nothing but lazy lines, playing on her age in terms of snarkiness and drug use, or in terms of being over fifty years old, period. One of Bonnie’s more cringe-inducing lines is about her relationship with Violet: “We talk all the time–and we’re Facebook friends!” The canned audience laughs because… Facebook! Old people! Funny! She stumbles through the episode. But some of the lines are actually funny. When Christy confronts Chef Rudy for eating a Big Mac, he says, “Actually, it was a Filet-O-Fish,” with perfect pretension. What’s more, Anna Faris renders some pretty obvious lines effective. Though we see this punchline coming a mile away, when Christy tells Violet about mother-daughter hypocrisy, it’s laugh-out-loud funny–“I can’t tell you not to drink and smoke pot, because my senior yearbook quote was… ‘Lets drink and smoke pot.'” Even good sitcoms have trouble bridging the gap between smiles and guffaws. When a show like this has you laughing a dozen times in thirty minutes, that’s respectable, no matter how many times you roll your eyes.
Mom’s most promising but underwritten character is Roscoe’s father, Baxter (Matt Jones). As expected, he plays the dumb stoner. On Breaking Bad, a show built around the dramatic possibilities of dumb stoners, Matt Jones broke through the limitations of his character with wheezy, huggable charm. He made Badger a beloved sidekick whose performance was crowned last month with a Stand By Me-worthy monologue describing a pie-eating contest on Star Trek. So it’s unfortunate to see him here, delivering lazy Grand Theft Auto jokes and pot references. Beating hookers? Passing drug tests with Rosco’s urine? Every person watching–every single viewer–had heard both of these jokes before. But Matt Jones has so much scruffy charisma that he shines more brightly than ever when separated from Breaking Bad’s all-star lineup. Though it doesn’t look like Lorre will give him anything exceptional to work with, his screen presence crackles with authenticity, resembling Mark McGuire amongst the Springfield Isotopes in terms of serious acting talent. This is in terms of serious dramatic acting, of course. Christy’s children are effective in their roles, Anna Faris is often hysterical, and Allison Janney could be great if Chuck Lorre broke himself out of autopilot with Bonnie. We get it. She’s old and she smokes pot and does drugs and “Boy lordy!” is that boring material when there’s nothing behind it.
This is an epic battle for the soul of America playing out across your television sets. Being from Lorre’s lineage of decent-to-good multi-camera sitcoms, Mom doesn’t amaze–but she shows promise. In fact, the entire show feels like a metaphor for itself. As Christy struggles to break through her personal and professional demons and become a good mother, Mom’s cast struggles to escape the black hole of bad jokes and shallowness that sucked Charlie Sheen into his dramatic tailspin so long ago. If Christy can become a good mother, patch things up with Bonnie, and find meaningful places for Baxter and Gabriel in her life situation, we might have a really funny series with actual characters. Otherwise, the entire cast might become the Harper family all over again. Cross your fingers and hope to cry, America.
all photos credit: CBS