The critical reaction to “Mom” in its early episodes went something like this: “Hey, this is pretty good for a Chuck Lorre show.”
Which is to say that even though Lorre is the co-creator of the biggest comedy on TV in “The Big Bang Theory” — which is plenty liked by critics as well as lots and lots of viewers — the initial judgment of “Mom” was in relation to one of Lorre’s other shows, “Two and a Half Men.” And indeed, the pilot of “Mom” wore its heart on its sleeve in a way “Men” almost never does.
Five episodes in, that heart remains very much front and center. “Mom” has also become one of the funniest comedies on the air this fall.
Monday’s (Oct. 21) episode, which featured Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a guest star (opposite her co-star from “The Help,” Allison Janney), had as many genuine laugh-out-loud moments as I’ve experienced watching TV in weeks. And for a show about a recovering alcoholic and her equally messed-up mother, it’s also figured out rather quickly how to laugh with its characters rather than at them.
That’s no small feat. The first few episodes of “Big Bang,” for instance, had real trouble embracing the various eccentricities of Sheldon, Leonard and their friends, and at times it felt as though the show was just holding them up for ridicule. “Mom” has already made dozens of jokes about Christy’s (Anna Faris) and her mom Bonnie’s (Janney) alcoholism and Christy’s financial struggles, but they tend to come directly from the two leads rather than outside. Christy is all about gallows humor, while Bonnie has seemingly bottomed out so many times that nothing fazes her. The fact that the characters make light of their own situation makes it a lot easier for the audience to go along with the joke.
Or jokes, rather: “Mom” is decidedly old-school in its style (it’s a live-audience, multi-camera show) and setup-punchline rhythms. That way lies a thousand hacky sitcoms, but the “Mom” cast is blessed with sharp timing and an ability — also rare in live-audience shows — not to play every line to the back row.
It’s by no means a perfect show yet. Faris is too often stuck with the frowny, disapproving straight-woman role in the scenes with her family. Monday’s show was the first not to feature her waitress job at all, but while it was maybe the strongest episode so far, it also featured an inordinate amount of frowny Christy. Faris is better when she gets to mix the put-upon aspects of the character with the vulnerable side she’s exhibited in the workplace scenes and those with Justin Long (who returns next week) as her love interest.
It would also be nice to see Christy get a win every now and then. So far our experience with her is one where just about everyone in her life has let her down in some way, and she’s continually digging out from an enormous hole. To some degree that’s embedded in the premise of the show, but a few little victories would help keep the show from becoming a downer.
There’s time for that, though. Despite middling ratings, CBS recently gave “Mom” a full-season order. Here’s hoping the show can continue its upward trajectory.