Chuck Lorre makes unapologetically old-school TV comedy, right down to the on-point laughter of the studio audience. The dialogue consists of cookie-cutter one-liners delivered by single-trait characters: wimps, ladies’ men, party girls, nerds, parents who don’t get it. Is Lorre the last of a breed? It’s hard to tell, because there are always plenty of sitcoms around with no apparent audience—Wings was on for an amazingly long time, and before you know it, we’ll be able to say the same thing about Hot In Cleveland. It’s likely that some of these shows are just the same kind of punched-out corporate product as Lorre’s, but it’s impossible to say how many such shows exist until someone volunteers to watch them.
What’s remarkable about Lorre is that nothing he does can kill the generally agreed-upon proposition that his shows are culturally relevant and of the moment. He has a genius for ideas that sound like placeholder gags in the first draft of a sketch about the lethally unimaginative nature of TV sitcoms. A hippie chick marries a guy who wears suits to work! A geeky guy hits it off with a sexy babe! A loser lives with his brother, who, despite the fact that he’s Charlie Sheen—wait, let’s just get demented with this and make that because he’s Charlie Sheen—gets laid all the time!
By general decree, the Charlie Sheen show, Two And A Half Men, was Lorre’s “edgiest.” Having established that his notion of a cutting-edge sitcom hero is an unreconstructed Rat Pack asshole living a frat-house drunk’s idea of the good life, Lorre has used his latest show, Mom, to introduce his notion of a cutting-edge sitcom heroine. (It should be acknowledged that Lorre doesn’t work alone here: Mom was co-created by Gemma Baker and Eddie Gorodetsky.) As Christy, Anna Faris plays a woman whose party-hardy ways have left her sober, older, and doomed, crushed by responsibilities and trying to suck up her duties at her dead-end, low-paying job until she makes it to her next Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Christy’s dreams of getting her head above water go south when her 16-year-old daughter announces that she is now pregnant by her lunkhead boyfriend. Christy also has a younger son, whose dimwit father is forever scratching at the door, hoping to cadge some money or a place to stay—or just thinking that maybe he’ll get lucky again.
The show borrows the basic relationship template from Two And A Half Men, with Faris as the loser brother and Allison Janney in the wild-card role of Christy’s druggin’, drinkin’, casually law-breaking mother. That show’s financial fantasy is gone, though. Everyone on Mom is just scraping by, or worse, but the fact that Janney has no internal filter and doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings or good opinion is commensurate with Charlie Harper’s ability to afford to live any way he wants. When you’re the creator or executive producer of four current hit shows and have network executives beating down your door, you may be envious of those with unfettered tongues—even if those tongues come with an inability to make car payments.
Mom is easily the most daring show Lorre has been involved with, not counting his executive producer stint on Roseanne. The subjects for comedy include Janney’s horrifying past—she’s always topping her last nightmare anecdote about her wild days—and the cancer diagnosis of a pal from rehab. But Mom is also the show that firmly establishes the limits of Lorre’s approach. This isn’t Roseanne: There are constant references to things that are scary and sad, but the talk of trying to make ends meet lacks an authentic anxiety. The comedy is just like that of Lorre’s other shows: The talk isn’t dialogue—it’s just gags, totally synthetic and rolled out by the yard.
Allison Janney gets this. Although her previous sitcom experience has been limited to a few guest spots (including one on Two And A Half Men) and a regular role on the short-lived Mr. Sunshine, she understands that Mom is like trying to make a Neil Simon play work: She skates on the surface of the dialogue, using her vocal technique to sell the material and detonate the laugh lines. She’s so brilliant that she turns her checklist of nasty, thoughtless remarks and absurdist monologues about living a slapstick version of Breaking Bad into something close to a character.
But Anna Faris, who triumphed in so many terrible big-screen comedies, is lost without a map. She looks as if she truly believes there’s something to Mom’s scripts beyond a succession of setups and punchlines. Unable to find it, she just tries to dig deeper and deeper inside herself, seeking some inner truth that will illuminate what’s not on the page. The disconnect between Janney’s and Faris’ acting styles could match up with the void separating the responsible daughter and her remorseless mother—if Faris’ struggle with the material wasn’t so embarrassing to watch. Whatever problems have bedeviled Lorre’s shows in the past, too much integrity in the star’s acting is a new one.
Created by: Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker
Starring: Anna Faris, Allison Janney, Sadie Calvano, Nate Corddry, and Matt Jones
Airs: Monday at 9:30 pm Eastern on CBS
Format: Half-hour multi-camera sitcom
11 episodes watched for review