(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Steve Heisler pops in on one of the last episodes this season of the number one new comedy, Mike & Molly.)
In interviews, the creators of Mike & Molly and its actors vehemently deny it's a show about fat people. "This is a show about a relationship," they say (or something to that effect); and as episodes of this wildly popular new comedy have continued, those words have become more and more true. I didn't believe them at the beginning, though: The show's pilot was one fat joke after another, both before Mike met Molly and afterwards, on their date. In fact, the general tone of the first half of the episode was that both characters were doomed to be alone forever unless they slim down. Then in the second half, it was, "We're so glad you two fatties found each other!" The show might have been about the characters, but those characters were overweight, and Mike & Molly was not shy about pointing it out.
Mike & Molly just isn't comfortable putting its stars on screen without feeling the need to comment on their appearance. I watched a few recent episodes to prepare for tonight's Box Populi assignment, and even though the storylines no longer revolve around characters' weight issues, there are still plenty of jabs to be made. In "Samuel Gets Fired," Mike takes Samuel into his home when Samuel's fired from the diner, then tries to persuade the diner owner to give his friend the job back. But before all that can happen, the owner tells Mike that if he stirs the pot, he'll no longer be eligible for free meals. That's fine, Mike counters, because all he eats are salads. But wait, because the owner points out he'd also owe money for all the meals before the diet: pork chops, pie slices, etc. Mike balks. Get it? Because of all the food he ate? At this point these are pretty much throwaway lines, but I always wondered why Mike & Molly didn't just throw them away entirely.
I guess the show can be viewed as a sort of immersion therapy to ingratiate different body types to a larger TV audience. The barrage of jokes is a knee-jerk reaction, and as time goes on and the show continues to be made—with ratings the way they are, that shouldn't be a problem for the immediate future—Mike & Molly could, in theory, focus on more than just this reactionary comedy. Billy Gardell and Melissa McCarthy are super sweet and effortlessly funny on screen, and anything that employs Eastbound & Down's April Buchanon is fine in my book. There's a lot of strong moving parts on this show, it's a shame to see them utilized merely to find inventive ways to deliver yet another double entendre about enjoying some dessert.
"Victoria's Birthday," tonight's episode, makes two things clear: Mike & Molly inhabits an odd sitcom world, and the food talk isn't showing signs of slowing down—right from the beginning, even. The episode opens with Mike and Molly sitting around Molly's kitchen table. (In a move that pushes Mike & Molly in a sitcom-y direction, the show has mostly abandoned Mike's apartment, leaving only the house set.) The two are reminiscing about the breakfasts they used to eat before they went on a diet: Five mini-chocolate donuts, one around each finger so you can still hold your cup of coffee. They're interrupted twice by Victoria, first when she comes back from a very late night, and the second time when Mike, Molly, Molly's mom and her boyfriend Vince are sitting around trying to watch The Godfather. (And, of course, just after a discussion about cake vs. cupcakes.) She looks over and starts weeping at the prospect of being the sixth wheel—which…fat joke in disguise?—and runs to her room, only to be soothed by a sundae with three oreos hidden at the bottom.
The show uses food, and talk about food, as a means to drive scenes forward. Parks & Rec has its talking head segments; Mike & Molly has Carl's delicious and satisfying-sounding meal paired with Mike's "can of tuna" lunch. Mike enters the church—where Victoria is seeking direction in her life, thanks in large part to Carl's leery-eyed insistence—by complaining about how hungry he is. Even a brief tangent about Mike and Molly's sex life is in the context of a fun-size Snickers bar and Molly being the one who burned all the calories after. At this point, viewers must expect a certain level of food humor, and get uncomfortable when the show strays too far from its perceived core. And knowing they were coming sucked all the humor out of these bits; I can't say I laughed out loud, in whatever audible way, at any of them.
Which is a shame, because when Mike & Molly is allowed to do what it wants—otherwise known as "the rest of the episode"—it's actually pretty okay. There's some silly jokes, like after Victoria saying, "Black is really my color," Carl adds, "Mine too." And at one point, Molly goes into Victoria's room and keeps trying to sit on her beanbag chair, but falls off every time. (It's maybe one of those, "You had to have seen it" moments.) Mike & Molly isn't the boldest comedy on television or anything, but these are moments that at least feel like they were added simply because they tickled the writers for whatever reason. And though there are some sitcom tropes (Vince's character exists simply to say outrageous things for characters to roll their eyes at), the episode ended with Victoria in the church and Carl pouting outside, as Mike and Molly sip cake frosting with straws. It's about as unabashedly weird as Mike & Molly is ever going to get, but I'll take it.
Modern Family burst onto the scene by showcasing just how different its familial dynamics were from what we've come to expect. Mike & Molly took the opposite approach, trying really hard to demonstrate that these unfamiliar characters actually behave in familiar ways. It's this familiarity that seems to have drawn Mike & Molly its audience—a new and unexpected swath of people can look at these characters, none of whom are married nor look like they arrived right out of an iStockPhoto ad, and see something they can relate to. In that sense Mike & Molly is a success, and it manages to find levity and heart using this new and untested formula (at least in boring sitcom terms). And it's not just the food thing, either; it's just that Mike & Molly, to its continued disservice, makes food and its surrounding anxiety impossible to forget.