I said in my pre-air review of Mom that the show is roughly five sitcoms in one. That’s a bit of an overstatement, since they’re all united by Anna Faris’ Christy. Really, if I wanted to be a dick to myself, I could point out that this basically splits into two different shows—a workplace sitcom and a home-based sitcom—and so does The Dick Van Dyke Show, and that is a masterpiece of sitcommery, and I am a hack who should find a job digging ditches somewhere. But, also, I think it’s hard to watch this pilot and not find it at least a touch overstuffed. To understand why that is and to understand exactly the craziness we’re all in store for with watching and reviewing this show on a weekly basis, let’s break down the many different roles Christy plays within the show’s universe. Doesn’t that sound fun and amusing, just like a comedy? I know. I thought so, too.
Christy as mom: Sooner or later, you realize that all TV writing about parent-child relationships is, on some level, about the showrunners feeling guilty about how they’ve not been perfect parents to their own children because they have multi-million dollar entertainment enterprises to account for. This is true regardless of if they’re good or bad parents, because all parents ultimately feel like they’ve failed their children in one way or another. (And, while we’re at it, screwing up your kids somehow is pretty much inevitable, so you may as well stop worrying and save up for the therapy bills when they’re in their 20s.) This isn’t really any different, but one of the things I like about the show is the way that it at least pays lip service to the economic realities of being lower-middle-class in the United States at this point in time, and the Christy-as-mom storyline pays a lot of lip service to this.
In particular, Christy takes a shift off of work to attend Roscoe’s talent show. (Side note: She seriously named her son Roscoe? I have to assume that was the doing of Badger.) It’s the sort of storyline you’ve seen millions of times in family sitcoms, where the parent misses the talent show because they have the day or time wrong, and then they have to prove to both their child and themselves that they still care. Here, that’s flipped on its ear a little bit, as Roscoe just told Christy the wrong day to come to the show and she arrives to find she took a day off of work for no reason whatsoever. The unifying thread in all of the storylines is that Christy is trying to be a better person, but everything keeps getting in the way of that. It more or less comes through here, with a side of working class anxiety, which you all know I like.
Finally, on this tip: I don’t really think that I want to see Christy talk Violet through a teen pregnancy, so I’m hoping that’s a scare.
Christy as daughter: Here’s where much of the best, emotionally richest material arises, and that’s largely because Faris and Allison Janney form an instant, easy chemistry that makes some of the hackier material work. One thing I generally like about Mom is that it’s trying to be a show about not being a raging asshole, as opposed to giving in to one’s own worst impulses. Chuck Lorre (who co-created) has gotten a reputation—and not undeservedly—in recent years for making shows that are needlessly mean-spirited. Here, even though Bonnie and Christy have lots of water under the bridge, their antagonism feels like it’s orbiting around a forgiveness that might arrive any day now. I don’t know that the exchange between Faris and Janney about licking cocaine crumbs out of shag carpet is particularly funny in and of itself (though there’s a pleasing alliteration in cocaine-crumbs-carpet), but Janney puts such a spin on the line, “There’s no sin in being thrifty” that I laughed all the same. Janney’s going to be a natural in this format, and it should be fun to watch her figure that out alongside Faris, who’s always been a multi-camera sitcom star trapped in a cult film actress’ career.
Christy as employee: Here’s where the show falls down on the job and also where I see the looming specter of Two And A Half Men-ism, and not just because Jon Cryer turns up to a studio audience ovation. So much of comedy is about the balance between the generic—that which anybody can relate to by virtue of being a human being—and the specific—that which elevates the generic so that it has some snap and point-of-view. Where Christy’s home life has some idea of how this balance works, her work life has yet to find any specificity whatsoever. She essentially works in [restaurant] with [chef] and [boss]. There are attempts to flesh this out a bit, which I will get to in the next section, but for the most part, this feels like the broadest, hackiest part of the show, right down to Faris’ over-the-top crying, the one thing I didn’t like about her performance in this pilot. This is the version of the show that would be so lazy but also so easy to make, and I hope it doesn’t take over everything else.
Christy as girlfriend: The show attempts to flesh the above out by having Christy be in an illicit relationship with Gabriel—who’s married to the daughter of the restaurant’s owner and, thus, can’t leave his wife, even if he’d like to—and there’s some potential here, but it also feels really obligatory, as if the show wanted Christy to still be making some bad choices and decided this was the best one to make. I’m much more invested in her long-over relationship with Baxter, but mostly because Matt Jones is another actor who proves unexpectedly enjoyable playing to the studio audience’s laughter. I’m not inherently opposed to this storyline, but if we’re going to have a storyline meant to color our reactions to the others, I’d much rather it be…
Christy as recovering addict: Here’s the storyline I singled out in my pre-air review as one that could make this an all-time great. I don’t want to particularly watch the CBS/Chuck Lorre version of a show that’s just about recovering addicts, but I think as a color off to the side of the storyline of a woman trying to forgive her mother while trying to be a better mother to her own children, it works really well. Faris is ingratiating and warm in the scenes where she’s speaking to her Alcoholics Anonymous group. Janney is good when she realizes that maybe her sober stretch hasn’t been so sober, thanks to Xanax. There’s a punch to this material that livens up the other sections, and I think it could help everything else out, so long as Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, and Gemma Baker find just the right mix.
I’m genuinely optimistic for Mom. I thought the last act—when all of the characters were hanging out in Christy’s house and bouncing off of each other—was well-paced and acted stuff, with some solid punchlines from the script. It remains to be seen just how well all of the above elements will be balanced. Inevitably, one or two of them will recede in favor of some others, and that will determine whether I keep hoping the show will turn the corner. It would be nice to have another good multi-camera sitcom on the air, but in terms of shows I keep watching because I find them oddly fascinating, I still have Last Man Standing. I’m not sure I need this one if it starts turning into something I don’t like.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Mom reviews. I’ll be here each and every week, except for the weeks when I have to go and do something else. For my sins.
- I like French Stewart as an actor, but his weird energy is sort of wasted as a left-over character from Ratatouille. I hope the show finds more and more bizarre things for him to do.
- I’ll admit this: Christy telling Gabriel’s wife that her name is pronounced “Christ-y” is the hardest I laughed at anything from a new sitcom this fall.