5:25pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: In Praise of 'Mom,' Network TV's Only Soap-Com
It's time to come up with a new genre classification for CBS' Mom.
The drama/comedy waters have already grown muddy enough that when Emmy season rolls around, it takes a panel of grown adults to determine which hourlong shows are humorous enough to count as comedies, an entirely arbitrary process that rendered the frequently harrowing Shameless a comedy and pushed the frequently hilarious Orange Is the New Black a drama, but could just as easily reverse those two shows next year. That's a different argument and a different fight.
It's an argument and fight that at least thus far has never involved a half-hour show. Yes, there have been half-hour dramas in the past, but based on current Emmy rules, an In Treatment would have to go to a panel to verify its lack of funnies and, as it stands, there's no good reason for a show like Transparent to ever want to flee its time-mandated awards home.
And nobody would be foolish enough to suggest that Mom would be well served trying to submit in the drama categories for any future awards. It's a Chuck Lorre show, for Pete's sake. But if the television world is full of single-camera dramedies of all lengths, Mom has a corner all to itself as the only multicam dramedy on air.
Because of its not especially good pilot and audiences' generally quick trigger when it comes to dismissing shows based on either an episode or perhaps based only on advertising, there is a large swath of viewers who barely know what Mom is and instead think of it as That Thing Allison Janney Keeps Winning Emmys for Because Clearly Emmy Voters Will Give Allison Janney Emmys for Absolutely Everything and They Don't Even Care That Clearly It's an Awful Show Because It's a CBS Multicam. Or TTAJKWEFBCEVWGAJEFAEATDECTCIAASBIACM for short.
In response to the first part of that occasionally cumbersome title, I'll say what I always say: Nobody who has ever watched Mom with regularity has ever quibbled for a second with Allison Janney's recent Emmy domination for the show. Last season saw Janney's Bonnie Plunkett rekindle her romance with the love of her life only to have him die while performing oral sex on her, which prompted a downward spiral of grief and contributed to a relapse of her drug addiction, which led to estrangement from daughter Christy (Anna Faris) and a general level of misery the likes of which you don't expect to find on a CBS multicam, even if it happens to be the exact level of misery you typically get from watching 2 Broke Girls.
If Bonnie's arc from last season sounds like a potentially ungainly mixture of too-serious-to-joke-about sadness and lewd cunnilingus jokes, welcome to the strange brew of Mom. While Lorre's name remains all over Mom scripts, which can often have between three and five credited writers, he has let co-creators Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker make the show they want to make and the result hasn't always been consistently excellent, but it has always been consistently admirable.
Mom returns to CBS on Thursday (Nov. 5) night as one of the last returning shows (along with Elementary and 2 Broke Girls) to premiere this fall, held back by Thursday Night Football and by CBS' desire to give Life in Pieces the benefit of the Big Bang Theory launching pad. The season's first two episodes have been made available for critics and they represent a reasonably good point of entry for viewers who wonder what those Emmys have been about.
The two season-opening episodes also represent the show at a dramatic peak, while only occasionally even attempting humor. There are scenes in the premiere, titled "Terrorists and Gingerbread," in which long back-and-forth conversations play out without punchlines at all, or use the occasional punchline only as a tension release valve. Those scenes, not for the first time, made me reflect on how effective it can sometimes be that multicam comedy and multicam soap operas share a lot of the same visual language. The shot composition and editing of those high-emotion sequences play as closer to a soap opera than a sitcom, with the dramatic, rather than comedic, build. The instinct is to only use the term "soap opera" as a pejorative when it needn't be. If Mom is finally less of a dramedy and more of a soap-com, what's wrong with that?
Whatever hybrid it happens to be, Mom has always been carried by its performances and never more so than in the season premiere, which features Ellen Burstyn as Bonnie's mother, who returns to her life decades after putting her into the foster system and kick-starting a life of legal difficulties and addiction. Coming into Mom, nobody doubted Janney's abilities as an actress equally comfortable with comedy and drama. But the show's grand revelation has been how good the West Wing veteran has been at doing this particular kind of broad, wait-for-the-audience-reaction schtick, pivoting into pure grounded drama and making both sides of the character stick. In the premiere, the marvel is watching Janney's interactions, in the space of a single scene, with Burstyn and guest star June Squibb. Burstyn, no stranger to multicam comedy, is playing her role for truth, a mother who made mistakes and now, at the end of her life, is trying to set things right with her long-lost daughter. Squibb, no stranger to comedy-laced drama, is going for sitcom little old lady and nailing every punchline. And against these two award-winning actresses practicing completely different disciplines, Janney gets to raise both sides of her game.
And remaining a savvy complement, Faris continues to give one of the most underrated performances on TV. This was originally her starring vehicle, and there have been plenty of episodes that tap into the high jinks-based comedy that Faris was previously best known for, but Mom has shifted to either a two-hander or, at times, to a Janney showcase, and Faris has been consistently valuable whether carrying her own material or playing off her onscreen mother.
Faris gets to be more central in the season's second episode, "Thigh Gap and a Rack of Lamb," which offers a reminder of where Christy is in her development as both a mother and in the strange professional life that Mom has struggled with now for three seasons. Both episodes largely skip the restaurant side of the Mom narrative, a strange world in which French Stewart and Nate Corddry periodically have popped up to no comedic avail. Both episodes also soft-peddle Christy's relationship with son Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal) and particularly daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano), which is a pity because Calvano has been able to hold the screen well with her more experienced co-stars. The restaurant thing is still a problem in need of fixing, but I assume Calvano will be back later this season, since Mom has always been about its generations, with Burstyn adding another layer. In place of Calvano, the second episode features a young addict played by Emily Osment who works her way into the addiction group circle that also includes valuable supporting players Mimi Kennedy and Jaime Pressly, though the question of why the show needs a proxy-daughter for Christy when her actual daughter is a part of this world remains open.
The second Mom episode is more geared toward laughter than the premiere, but not surprisingly it works best when the jokes flow directly out of serious moments, like when Bonnie and Christy worry, from personal experience, about the dangers of larceny when they welcome Osment's character into their home. The yucks are funny, but painful. That's where Mom lives most comfortably, rather than in the simpler gags that have often fueled Lorre's shows, or that have often fueled our perception of Lorre's shows.
Call it a dramedy, call it a soap-com, or just reductively call it a sitcom, but Mom walks its network TV path alone.