So much stuff is starting to click on Mom that it’s making the lack of actual, funny jokes—jokes that would be funny if they weren’t delivered by Allison Janney—all the more obvious. The show is pretty good at coming up with amusing exchanges, and it’s definitely figured out how to put the characters in situations that would suggest comedy. But it’s falling down in the joke-writing department. I’ve long said that jokes are the easiest thing to fix on a comedy that’s mostly there but not quite all there, because that’s just a matter of hiring out for some ace gag writers. And Mom has a small-ish writing staff, so it’s possible that with a full season order, the show will bring in some new writers who will juice up the comedy side of things.
I’m saying this because “Cotton Candy And Blended Fish” was, all around, the strongest episode of Mom yet, but it didn’t really make me laugh all that often, outside of a couple of times Janney or Anna Faris found the laughs in a line that was just sort of there. (French Stewart is also doing a good job with this sort of thing, but his material—which tends to amount to “Ain’t bitches crazy!?” asides—is much, much weaker.) There was one place where everything clicked together. Marjorie was going to the chemotherapy appointment she had to treat her breast cancer, and Christy had volunteered to bring her, since Marjorie had baked the brownies for Roscoe’s bake sale she knew Christy would forget. Marjorie then asked Bonnie to come along as well, and after Bonnie agreed, Christy thanked her for coming. “What choice do I have?” Bonnie said (with impeccable delivery by Janney). “She survives this, I don’t need her knowing what a bitch I am.”
It’s the rare combination of the show coming up with a line that’s funny in and of itself, funny in the situation onscreen, and funny because of the actress saying it. Mom does this once or twice per episode, and it’s always great to see the show can do it, but too often, the series leans too heavily on simply going for cheap grossout gags—like the reference to cotton candy that wound its way into the title—or sex jokes that don’t really have a payoff—like that whole scene with Christy and Violet, while Luke looked on and cracked wise about boobs. I get that the show is, ultimately, a Chuck Lorre sitcom, and it may be stupid of me to look for something other than lowest-common denominator humor from it, and I get that the writers likely want to have a few bits like this in every episode for the CBS promo department to slice up. (Notice how, for instance, the “next week on” for this episode made it look like a wacky episode where Christy and Bonnie competed to win the heart of a sexy doctor by trying to look their hottest, only for most of that material to be in the tag and not the episode proper.) But eventually, this show is going to have to make the dramatic and comedic sides of its divided self work, if it wants to take the Roseanne crown that is within its grasp.
Because, honestly, the dramatic stuff is clicking along pretty well. It’s fascinating to watch the show slowly retool itself into a series about recovering addicts. It’s not the most natural material in the world for a sitcom, and it sometimes puts me in mind of The John Larroquette Show (though that was more of a pure workplace sitcom), but in the moments where it finds the bruised heart of these characters, it succeeds with aplomb. What’s even more interesting about this is that the show seems to be skewing away from the restaurant almost deliberately, including one scene set there every couple of episodes, as if it’s not sure what to do with the setting. So much of the story here centers on Christy and Bonnie, so it makes sense that the restaurant would get marginalized. But I’m honestly surprised it’s happened this quickly. Unless the restaurant comes up with an immediately compelling reason to exist, we might have a reverse Barney Miller or Spin City here, where the workplace element is jettisoned to focus on the home element, instead of the opposite.
In particular, I’m intrigued by how Marjorie has now appeared in as many episodes as some of the actual, credited supporting characters, at least by my count. And if you were going to list characters on this show, I imagine you’d come up with Marjorie before you’d come up with, say, Gabriel or even Luke. (Luke, at least, has a tie to the show’s center in his relationship with Violet. I don’t know what Gabriel’s going to do.) It’s fairly telling that the first time the series did a major spotlight on a character other than Christy or Bonnie was in last week’s episode about Baxter, and now the second spotlight episode is for Marjorie, who’s ostensibly a guest star. The story here is about what lengths Bonnie and Christy will go to to help a friend, and Christy’s the one who gets the biggest emotional moment (when she goes to see Jerry, Marjorie’s estranged son). But most of the episode is spent getting to know Marjorie better, to see her life and observe how she’s coping with her cancer and its treatment.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Marjorie is played by the great character actress Mimi Kennedy, another woman who could find the laughs in a line as simple as “Hello.” Kennedy seemed like she would be playing a one-off character that first time she showed up, a rival for Bonnie who could visit once or twice per season if she really popped. Instead, Marjorie keeps turning up, and her relationship with the two leads softens with every episode, until we’re seeing her unusual cat-care methods (which involve throwing a whole fish in a blender to make a meal for her eight feline friends) and placing Bonnie’s antagonism toward her in more of an affectionate context. I’m probably too much of a nerd when it comes to things like sitcoms retooling themselves on the fly, but this whole thing has been fascinating to me, and I hope Marjorie sticks around for the long haul.
It would also help if the show punched up the jokes. Mom may have a smaller audience than most CBS sitcoms, but that audience appears to be fairly loyal, and the viewership numbers actually ticked up a bit last week. (Maybe everybody really wanted to see Baxter and Christy hook up.) The show hasn’t yet reached its full potential, but it’s impressive to me that it’s really only a couple of good joke writers away from a bunch of trend pieces about how good it is.
- Jeff Greenstein has directed the last couple of episodes, and I think he has a good handle on what the show is and what it wants to be. He’s handled the dramatic moments in both very well, and he broke the proscenium arch tonight to get an apparently necessary Luke reaction shot in that scene where Violet couldn’t fit into her jeans.
- Speaking of Christy’s kids, I also laughed at Roscoe saying, “I doubt it” when his mother assured him he’d do better on his next test. But that was another place where it was mostly delivery.
- I guess we can officially retire the 1,200 words meme, because I’ve had enough to say about this show for three weeks now. It’s been nice counting the days until I lost interest in you, Mom, and I’m sure you’re happy to know I’m in for at least the season at this point.