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There are four or five different shows crammed into Mom. At least one of them is a potentially great show. One of the others could make for a largely enjoyable time-waster, like one of the other sitcoms from co-creator Chuck Lorre, The Big Bang Theory. But the others are all varying degrees of messy to distractingly awful. CBS seems to put on at least one new multi-camera sitcom per year that has enough good buried in it to hope for a return to a format TV that has done so well throughout its history—only to disappoint fans by steering the show directly toward mediocrity. Mom seems doomed to be that sitcom this year.
First, the good: Anna Faris turns what could have been an overstuffed main character into someone that makes sense almost immediately. Faris has to balance being a single mother, a working-class waitress in an upscale restaurant (thus always surrounded by that which she will not have), a disappointing daughter, part of a love triangle, and a recovering addict throughout the first episode of Mom. She’s not completely successful, but it’s doubtful anyone could have been. She does manage, however, to find a stable core that unites all of these versions of her character, along with a way of delivering all of the exposition necessary to keep these many personas juggling without making it seem ridiculous.
Joining Faris in the best version of this show—the one that could evolve into an all-time classic with a little love and care—is Allison Janney as Faris’ mother. The center of the show is the bruised relationship between the two, where mistrust and disappointment run deep on both sides, and the series is smart enough to leave as an open question whether this relationship is what’s causing Faris to struggle in her relationship with her own teenage daughter. (Though Faris is playing a woman roughly the same age as herself, she had a daughter in high school, then a son a few years later.) There’s not as much depth in the script as Faris and Janney bring to it, but both are clearly having fun playing up the invective between the two characters. In particular, the scenes where both struggle with their respective addictions have a ring of truth to them. It’s presented as a constant struggle, where a lot of sitcoms might make it an obstacle to be overcome easily enough.
It’s the rest of the show that’s lacking. Though Faris does her best in the scenes in her workplace, there’s little reason to feature stories there, and even less reason to have two of the series’ regulars be stationed there. Perpetually fretting boss Nate Corddry and asshole chef French Stewart might be fun in small doses, but given the way the latter gets all the pilot’s easiest punchlines, it seems likely the show will keep going to the restaurant over and over for cheap, unsatisfying gags. It’s not even that this stuff is particularly bad—it could make for a serviceable workplace sitcom told from an unusual point of view—but the economic fears and class consciousness that drive the more interesting material only appear fleetingly here, and it pales in comparison to whatever Faris and Janney get up to.
There are other nice touches around the edges. Supporting players as diverse as Matt Jones (as the father of one of Faris’ children) and a one-scene janitor get to have little jokes and spins on the material, providing a sense that everyone in this world has something to say, even if that’s not true. There’s a late scene with some genuinely funny jokes in it—one hinges on the pronunciation of Faris’ character’s name and comes out of nowhere—and the kind of comedic rhythm that can only come in a multi-camera sitcom where plots start piling up. Plus, there’s a chance for Lorre and his co-creators, Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker, to redo one of Lorre’s earlier, flawed series, Grace Under Fire, which seemed like it was building toward something terrific until it was undercut by circumstances beyond the show’s control.
Yet it’s not hard to look at the restaurant material—with punchlines as basic and obvious as “The correct answer was ass” in response to a character being asked what something tastes like—and see how it might gradually crowd the other, better, darker stuff right out of the frame. Unlike with Michael Patrick King and 2 Broke Girls, Lorre is smart about recalibrating his shows to play to their most promising elements. (Without this skill, most people would never have heard of Jim Parsons.) At the very least, Mom should become something watchable, thanks to its cast and that particular skill of Lorre’s.
But there’s a better show rattling around in here, one that speaks to America’s current economic anxieties and what it means to live a life constantly on the edge, in the middle of nowhere. Maybe Lorre and company go for broke on critical acclaim with this one, but making a big, crass show about a woman whose dark past gets shoved aside in favor of her wacky co-workers as often as possible would be so much easier. Mom, more than any show on his résumé, might ultimately prove what Chuck Lorre is made of.
Created by: Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, Gemma Baker
Starring: Anna Faris, Allison Janney, Nate Corddry, French Stewart
Debuting: Monday at 9:30 p.m. Eastern on CBS
Format: Multi-camera half-hour sitcom
Pilot watched for review