One of the reasons I continue to cling to the multi-camera sitcom as a viable form of artistic expression is the presence of the live studio audience. I’ll admit that in the past decade or so, the audience has primarily been understood by too many multi-cams as “the people who laugh,” but increasingly, in the last two or three years, shows are starting to get a better sense of how the audience can be used as a sort of invisible character on the show. And there are few shows handling that idea better than Mom right now. Think, for instance, of the scene where Bonnie chews out Alvin for abandoning her shortly after Christy’s birth. There’s not a joke anywhere in what Bonnie says, but such is the force of Allison Janney’s performance that the audience doesn’t know what to do. You can hear that reaction change in ripples. Some of the audience members laugh. Some of them let out something like an “ooh.” Some of them seem perched on the edge of applause. The reaction shifts and morphs and evolves, never settling, always adding necessary texture to an emotionally fraught moment.
“Fireballs And Bullet Holes” isn’t as good as last week’s episode—which I think I liked a little more than Gwen did—but it’s still a good example of how the show’s seeming ongoing evolution in the direction of Christy’s home life and the downplay of her work life has been an overall positive for the show. There are things I like about the restaurant world, chiefly French Stewart’s performance, but the material around Christy and her mother is so much more powerful than anything over at the restaurant that the rest of the show can’t escape its gravity. The jokes are better. The acting is better. Even Anna Faris seems more engaged in what’s going on over there. It’s a show that seemed like it was going to be one thing getting constantly dragged toward another, in real time.
In a way, that might be the hidden genius of that messy Mom pilot. As you might recall, I outlined a whole bunch of different shows existing within that pilot, but I was somewhat cynical about the series ever evolving toward the stuff I found most interesting. When it did, I was pleasantly surprised, but now, I don’t wonder if that was part of the creators’ plan for the thing. They would set up a bunch of different potential shows, but they’d also stack the deck in terms of where the interest was by putting a lot of the strongest actors and situations over on the home life side of things. To say that CBS would be unlikely to put on a sitcom about recovering addicts dealing with troubled pasts and give it one of the network’s primo timeslots is an understatement. But by putting those elements inside of a more conventional sitcom, then just letting it evolve naturally, the series’ producers were able to pull off a kind of smuggling of a more complicated sitcom onto TV. It’s the sort of thing that would only work with a producer as powerful as Chuck Lorre working steadfastly as co-creator and writer, but, hey, look who’s working on this show.
As mentioned, “Fireballs And Bullet Holes” is a step down from last week’s episode, but in a fairly predictable way. When Mom cast Kevin Pollak as Christy’s dad, there was no way that it was going to have him appear just in the one scene. He was clearly there to fill out some kind of arc, and as Christy decides to go back to Chico and try to become a part of his life again in this episode, the show first seems to be about how hard it is to enter the life of a long-gone parent as an adult and still get to be their kid, before shifting to being about Christy getting to meet her new father and brothers. It’s a good story for Anna Faris, who gets to cry and laugh and yell, all things she’s very adept at. But it’s somehow been an even better one for Allison Janney, who got those great moments last week when the show reaffirmed the strength of teenage single mothers. This week she gets to play Bonnie’s growing certainty that by trying to make Alvin part of her life, Christy is trying to give short shrift to the parent who was actually there for her.
Last week’s episode was the sort of episode I’d love to see Mom do more of in the future, where nothing is resolved at the end but the strength of the bond between mother and daughter. But “Fireballs” is probably truer to life, in a way. Christy was never going to sit back and simply write her dad off as someone she didn’t want in her life. And we all needed to see what would happen once she told him—to hear why, exactly, he would abandon a day-old baby on Christmas Eve. (“To be fair,” he tells Christy, “God did the same to Jesus.”) The episode is notable for letting much of this play out without lots of jokes, instead letting the very real emotions these people would be feeling carry the scenes. When Alvin suggests that he doesn’t really want Christy to be part of his life because he doesn’t want his wife and kids to think he was once a bad person, he gets to see that she almost certainly inherited his temper. And we’ve already talked about how Janney seemingly moves heaven and earth when she chews out the man she once loved and later learned was a scumbucket.
And that’s where the studio audience actually helps this show, not hinders it. When single-camera comedies drift too far toward dramatic material, they can often run the risk of turning into overly sappy melodramas. There’s nothing wrong with this, but without the constant stream of laughs, it can be tempting to wonder why the programs aren’t just hourlong light dramas. That’s not the case with a multi-camera sitcom, where the very form seems to insist upon a certain setup-punchline script structure. When that’s not present, the show can get so much mileage out of the tension between what the audience—both in the studio and at home—expects to happen and what’s actually happening. Mom has already reached the stage of its life where it’s confident enough to let some of these scenes play out without constant laughter. Let’s see how far it’s willing to push itself.
- The title of this episode reminds me of my favorite Sarah Harmer song, so I will let you listen to it now.
- I usually don’t comment on TV show genetics, but I see no fathomable way that a union of Allison Janney and Kevin Pollak would produce Anna Faris. It just doesn’t make sense. Another TV nitpick: These characters bombing between Napa and Chico seems a little far-fetched, given that it would take two-and-a-half hours in good traffic, and it seems unlikely there would always be good traffic. But that’s probably just California for you. (More realistic might have been if he lived in East Palo Alto or something.)
- To be fair, we do drop by the restaurant for all of about a minute in this episode, and Gabriel gets a line. Sorry, Nate Corddry. We thought you’d be a bigger part of the show, too.
- Potentially interesting: Mom seems to have a five-person writers’ room, rather than a much larger one. I wonder how the relatively small size of the room is contributing to the show’s evolution.
- And with that, we should probably officially retire the “1,200th word” thing, because this is closing in on 1,300. Good on you, Mom.