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Mom is not just another crummy CBS sitcom. It's actually … good

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The cast of CBS's Mom is one of the best things about the sitcom. But it's a much better show than you're probably expecting.
The cast of CBS's Mom is one of the best things about the sitcom. But it's a much better show than you're probably expecting.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I don't know that I could call CBS's sitcom Mom (airing tonight at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) a great show, but I would definitely call it a special and important one.

There are plenty of things Mom does wrong: like all sitcoms from Chuck Lorre (who co-created with Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker), it relies on broad, hacky shtick too often (particularly in its poorly used workplace setting), and it sometimes feels like it has no command of its tone whatsoever.

But it does just as many things right. Unlike so many comedies on the air right now, it captures an air of desperation — of people who barely have enough trying to find ways to scrape by. That was already evident in season one, but in season two, that has become the show's mission statement, and to its credit. (And, if you're curious, you can watch season two without having seen season one. But you can also watch season one here.)

In fact, I wouldn't say it's a question of if Mom becomes a great show. I'd say it's a question of when.


The multi-camera sitcom is filmed much like a stage play might be, with similar blocking. (CBS)

Why you might be judging Mom without having seen it

The first thing you need to know about Mom is that it's a multi-camera sitcom. What do I mean by that? The more accurate term would be "stage-bound sitcom," because it's the type of show that grew largely out of the traditions of the American stage comedy. It's filmed in front of a live studio audience, usually on a handful of standing sets, and the performance style is very broad and theatrical.

The multi-camera sitcom has been responsible for some of the best shows in television history — all the way from I Love Lucy to Seinfeld — but it's fallen on hard times critically. The most popular show on television — The Big Bang Theory — falls into the genre, but mention that show in a circle of TV fans, and it will likely be met with just as much derision as praise. (For what it's worth, I generally like the program, even if I have no real concept of why it's so popular.)

Because Mom is from Lorre's production house, which also produces Big Bang, Two and a Half Men, and Mike and Molly, the general assumption when it debuted was that it would eventually drift into crass mockery and dumb shtick, with episodes that mostly petered out instead of actually ended.

And while Mom certainly does some of that — there's a far too broad Armenian landlord character in last week's season premiere — it's proved slyer and more slippery than initial preconceptions. A big, messy show, filled with far too many characters and side-stories, Mom nonetheless has turned into an often emotionally brutal series about the healing process — one that manages to be funny in spite of its inherently dramatic setting.


Jaime Pressly guest stars in Mom as a woman who is just starting out on her recovery process. (CBS)

How sitcoms are like addiction recovery

Think about All in the Family or Cheers. Both shows were riotously funny, but they also had some of the best character development in the history of television — character development that paid off in later seasons, when long-building arcs resolved in unlikely alliances between former combatants. In recent years, the multi-camera sitcom has been written off as a place where character growth doesn't happen (mostly thanks to the endlessly recyclable Two and a Half Men), but that's never been true of the format, as both of these shows prove.

Hell, it's not even true of the format right now. Big Bang's greatest strength is the slow-building emotional growth of its characters, while Last Man Standing (ABC's Tim Allen vehicle you probably forgot existed) explores the complicated emotional terrain of a family divided by politics attempting to stay mostly cordial.

And Mom tops both of those shows at the character development game. Its protagonist, Christy (Anna Faris), is a recovering alcoholic and addict, and her job as a waitress leaves money for the whole family tight. This is complicated by the fact that she is now playing host to her mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), also a recovering alcoholic and addict, whose relationship with Christy has been terrible over the years. Meanwhile, Christy wasn't the best mother to her own children during her years of addiction, and she's steadily trying to rebuild those relationships, with limited success.

Mom, then, is about healing but also about how the recursive nature of the sitcom — everything resets at the start of the next episode — is a lot like recovery. Christy might reach a personal breakthrough at the end of one episode, but by the start of another, she's right back where she started. And that's how it is to be in the constant process of trying to better oneself. You might make progress, but you're always haunted by the person you were.

The second season premiere, in fact, opens with a series of dreams she has where she "slips" and finally gives in to drinking again. Dream sequences are usually cheap, but these raise the stakes for the show. Alcohol is all around where she works, after all, and it would be so easy to slip up. That she doesn't is a victory, but for every celebration comes the point where she simply has to start over.


Christy met her dad (Kevin Pollak) last season, and he's become an important part of the show's story. (CBS)

A serialized sitcom

The addiction material is the strongest thing about Mom (to the degree where the show has promoted Mimi Kennedy's Marjorie, a recurring character on that side, to a regular player this season), followed closely by the story of Christy and Bonnie's tempestuous relationship. But the show is also — almost uniquely — interested in what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck in 2014 America.

This is not new territory for the multi-camera sitcom. It formed the basis for The Honeymooners, All in the Family, and Roseanne, among many others. But it's mostly faded into the background in recent years, as more and more shows have become about characters who have enough money to never have to worry about anything.

Mom's class-consciousness only goes so far — the characters still live in an airy, TV-approved apartment — but when Christy struggles in the season premiere to pay her rent (thanks to a previously undisclosed gambling problem), her statement will ring true to many Americans. The money she gambled away wasn't the rent money. It was more like it might have become the rent money.

That class consciousness also allows the show to turn one of Lorre's perpetual weaknesses — those ending-less episodes — into a weird strength. In season two, Mom has just gone all serialized, all the time, as the characters' perpetual money troubles compound and feed off of each other. One crisis might get resolved, but another will be around to take its place by the end of the episode (and therefore become the basis of the next week's episode).

When you don't have enough money, things never happen one at a time. They happen all at once. And while that's hard to simulate on TV — though fellow blue-collar sitcom The Middle has done a solid job with it — Mom is capturing something of that feel in its new structure. The show hasn't mastered how to do this just yet, and tonight's cliffhanger, in particular, is clunky. But it's fascinating to watch the show try.



Christy, Bonnie, and Violet get a letter from the adoptive parents of Violet's baby. (CBS)

When, not if

I said above that I don't think Mom's eventual greatness is a question of if, but, rather, of when, and part of that is simply because of how multi-camera sitcoms work. There are a handful of them that launched perfectly (Cheers, for instance). But there are just as many that launched with potential, then took years and years to fully realize that potential. Even such a standard bearer as The Mary Tyler Moore Show took a couple of seasons to fully hit its groove, while pretty much any sitcom starring Bob Newhart needed (appropriately) a couple of seasons of throat clearing.

Multi-cam, in other words, just takes time, because so much of what makes it good at its best is about giving the ensemble cast time to gel, about giving the writers time to figure out the conflicts that work best in this particular setting. Multi-camera comedy relies on jokes, sure, but it also relies on the connections built between characters, on the way that the longer scenes inherent in the stage play can allow real emotional stories and beats to play out.

But time is anathema to our modern TV landscape, where so many people watch one episode of a show (usually the pilot) and draw instant conclusions about it. Mom was written off by many because of its shaky (though potential-laden) pilot, but now that it's into its second season, it's really starting to cook, particularly in the scenes between Faris and Janney (who are tremendous performers in this format). It might not be one of the greatest shows on TV right now — but I reckon it will be.

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