Ah, Allison Janney.
If there’s going to be anything keeping me watching Mom, it’s the work turned in by Janney and Anna Faris, who are each creating intriguing, prickly characters, the sorts of people who aren’t always at the center of sitcoms and particularly not at the center of multi-cam CBS sitcoms. This is a series with too many characters—both French Stewart and Matt Jones basically turn up to say one or two lines and collect a paycheck this week—and it’s a series with too many different versions of itself. But it’s also a series that boasts two terrific actresses, building a troubled relationship that seems just as likely to completely fall apart as it is to keep getting better. Or, put another way, when this episode ended with Bonnie gifting Christy with a vibrator, then Janney and Faris watching the thing buzz its way across a kitchen table in a box, wry little grins on their faces, I smiled. It wasn’t the cleverest joke out there, but I liked the way the actresses played it. They’re what’s keeping me coming back.
Janney’s at the center of the episode’s best routine as well, when she offers to watch Roscoe when both Christy and Violet are out on dates (about which more in a minute), then spends her time with her grandson teaching him the rules of blackjack. In and of itself, this is nothing special. It’s just an “irresponsible grandma” plot, of the sort that we can expect Janney to get many of before this series slouches off the air. (This may happen sooner, rather than later, given its disappointing—for CBS—ratings, but I suspect the fact that it holds on to so much of 2 Broke Girls’ diminishing audience is a point in its favor in that regard. At least it’s not Hostages.) Yet there’s so much warmth and fun to the way Janney is playing things, as if she’s happy just to be on a show where all she has to do is tell some dirty grandma jokes, rather than have the fate of the free world rest on her shoulders somehow.
The “Roscoe learns to gamble” plot was probably the best-written thing Mom has come up with so far, but to watch it is to see what a great actor can bring to even pretty good material. There’s an enjoyable callousness to Janney’s work in this scene, as she pretends to be a casino owner, offering to comp Roscoe’s room after he loses everything in his piggy bank or tenderly stroking his face when she tells him he’s going to make some nice woman very unhappy someday. That comes back toward the end, when Baxter points out to his son that he can hold, something Bonnie neglected to tell him about, and the scene doubles back into another joke on Bonnie. This isn’t terribly complicated stuff, but as played by Janney, Jones, and young Blake Garrett Rosenthal, there’s a snappiness to it that really works. I don’t want to see Janney reduced to playing a naughty grandma, but it’s clear she’d have fun with it even if that turned into her role.
Sadly, this was all happening in the B-story. The A-story, while an improvement over last week’s lack of A-story, isn’t as entertaining, hinging as it does on characters whose actions don’t make much sense. Justin Long turns up as a restaurant diner who immediately sparks to his waitress—who just so happens to be Christy—and she seizes at this opportunity to finally go on a date with someone other than her married boss. Gabriel has some problems with this, but he is steamrolled by the sheer force of Anna Faris’ wacky physical comedy, and Christy goes out with the nice young man played by Justin Long. (His character’s name is “Adam,” but “Justin Long” describes him so much better, so I think I’m just going to keep going with that.)
Long is set up to seem like he’s going to be a recurring character or something. He’s got that weirdly close relationship with his sister, he’s got a somewhat elaborate personal history, and he’s obviously meant to be a little too good to be true, to give Christy something to aspire toward. (Her spiraling departure from the restaurant would have given many reason to simply give up on her. Not Long, who pursues her into the parking lot with a bag of takeout food he bought off some guy.) Yet the episode ends with Christy deciding she’s not yet ready to start dating and that she’ll need time to move on to Long, who will be at the top of her list. There’s nothing wrong with this—we could always get more of that sweet, sweet Justin Long action come February sweeps or something—but the whole thing relies on implausibility, on the idea that Long would be so entranced by Christy that he would pursue her in such a manner. The show tries to hang a lantern on it by having Christy point out how unusual this all is, but it doesn’t really work.
Of course, there’s always Bonnie there to point out the obvious. My Mom laugh of the week comes from Christy describing to her mother what Long is like, only to have her mom retort that she’s just described every serial killer. Which is true! But probably not where this show is going to go, huh? (Actually, I think Justin Long could play a potentially very scary serial killer. And serial killers are hot right now! Let’s make this show, CBS, and let’s slot it in between How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls. You’re running out of time to capitalize on the former!) This show is still at its best and most confident when it puts Janney and Faris together in a room and lets them talk, yet it keeps straying away from that to give them separate plotlines. I understand the impulse: Few of the other characters are strong enough to carry their own storylines, and who would want to see French Stewart as a randy chef anyway? But it still feels like the series is wasting some of its strongest possible material by limiting the two to one or two short scenes together per week.
Still, this is all early on, and this feels like the sort of thing the show will build toward in the weeks to come. Consider this grade provisional: If the show keeps playing to its strengths, then this will end up seeming like an indicator of better things to come. If, instead, the show keeps trying to split Faris and Janney up as much as possible and hitting Nate Corddry with cars, it will seem ridiculously optimistic.
- Chef Rudy’s joke about the teenage girl he may have impregnated makes the “previously on.” Odd choice there.
- Is Justin Long’s career arc now to come into potentially good, potentially troubled sitcoms with female leads better known for movie careers in their first seasons, for romantic arcs that don’t make a ton of sense? Guess so.
- And the end of this sentence will be my 1,200th word.