When Bridesmaids hit in the summer of 2011, the film’s most likely beneficiary was Mike & Molly, the sitcom that employed Bridesmaids breakout Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy turned a small part in that film into a reason to completely reinvent her image, becoming one of the film world’s unlikeliest stars. She was unhinged in a way women rarely get to be on the big screen, and audiences ate it up. She followed that up with an Emmy for her work on Mike & Molly, an Oscar nomination, and a film career that extends to this year’s hits Identity Thief and The Heat.
Yet her Mike & Molly character predates her Bridesmaids success. Apparently modeled on the role McCarthy was previously best known for, Gilmore Girls’ Sookie St. James, Molly was also sweet and big-hearted and optimistic. And, like Sookie, she was able to find love while still maintaining her own personal autonomy and agency. But also like Sookie, Molly was tremendously unlikely to defecate in a sink. McCarthy had become a big star, but for playing characters that were the polar opposite of her TV bread and butter.
Thus, in the longer-than-expected gap between the third and fourth seasons of Mike & Molly, co-executive producer Chuck Lorre and company set about on the unenviable task of re-imagining the show so that Molly would remain recognizably herself, while still skewing more toward the film characters McCarthy had become known for. Lorre correctly surmised that the reason McCarthy was such a film star was because in her movies, everybody was reacting to her, while on Mike & Molly, the exact opposite dynamic was at play. What no one seems to have asked is whether making Molly more like one of McCarthy’s film characters was a good idea in the first place.
The fourth season of Mike & Molly has played out as one of the more awkward retools in recent TV history. It’s not a terrible show, and every episode has moments when it either emotionally connects with the audience or offers up some solid laughs from its talented ensemble cast. But for the most part, the series seems so far away from its original core that it isn’t sure what it wants to be. It’s as if the show had been changed into one called Melissa, but nobody bothered to tell the rest of the actors, who keep showing up to collect paychecks. The series has contrived reasons to get McCarthy in a police uniform and squad car (in a dream sequence) and make out with Susan Sarandon (somehow not in a dream sequence), but it’s mostly been content to let everybody else stand around.
The impetus for this is the idea that Molly has decided she’s wasted her life as a teacher and wants to try being a writer. This frees up the show’s staff to place McCarthy in wackier and wackier situations, but it also means that she, like most writers, will be embarking upon these weird adventures all by herself. Sure, there was an episode where she went on a ride-along with husband Mike (Billy Gardell), and as a fellow title character, the show has to give Mike something to do every few episodes. But what was once a fitfully sweet romantic comedy about unexpected love now only pays lip-service to that idea in between scenes where McCarthy gets to exercise her physical comedy gifts. Gardell doesn’t even get the worst of it; as Molly’s mother and sister, Swoosie Kurtz and Katy Mixon are sidelined even more than they were in previous seasons.
This is not a tragedy for the ages. Mike & Molly rarely rose above serviceable in its previous incarnation, and McCarthy could more than anchor a show where she was the star attraction. She remains a terrific comic actress and screen presence, and her chemistry with Gardell continues to be simultaneously sexy and sweet. But trying to retrofit Mike & Molly into The Melissa McCarthy Show has mostly just made the series that exists seem weird, like an evolutionary hybrid sitcom with too many vestigial limbs. It might not have been much, but Mike & Molly was once about something—about love and dysfunctional family and the surprising connections that develop between people when they’re open to finding them. That stuff is still present here, but it’s been shifted very much to the background, in favor of more comic set pieces for McCarthy to indulge in. What the show is about now is latching itself to its biggest star and hoping it gets to produce a couple more seasons before she finally heads for greener pastures.
Created by: Mark Roberts
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Billy Gardell, Swoosie Kurtz, Katy Mixon, Reno Wilson
Airs: Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on CBS
Format: Half-hour multi-camera sitcom
Six season-four episodes watched for review