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CBS's Mom has an ingenious solution to TV sitcoms' biggest problem

Network comedy running times have gotten too short. This show found a way around that.

On CBS's Mom, moments of comedy mix with moments of supreme tragedy.
On CBS's Mom, moments of comedy mix with moments of supreme tragedy.
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.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for February 14 through 20, 2016, is "Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride," the 12th episode of the third season of CBS's Mom.

Talk to just about anybody who's worked in TV comedy long enough, and they'll lament one thing above all else: running time.

Sitcom episodes used to give writers space to tell actual stories. Episodes of the '80s standby Cheers, for instance, were roughly 24 minutes long. Even Friends, the most '90s sitcom of them all, had 22 minutes.

But modern sitcoms are lucky to get 21 minutes. And the episode of Mom I'm about to discuss clocks in at a little over 19 minutes — including both the "previously on Mom" segment from the start of the episode and the closing credits. That's just not enough time to tell a cohesive story, not without a fast pace and flashy editing, both of which are anathema to the style of Mom producer Chuck Lorre (who's also responsible for The Big Bang Theory and the late Two and a Half Men, among others).

The decrease in average sitcom running time almost singlehandedly explains the recent decline of TV comedy in the United States. But here's what you don't know — Mom has solved the problem.

On Mom, the stories never end

Mom hosts a bachelorette party.
Time for a bachelorette party on Mom.

To talk about Mom, we have to start with some TV terminology. Mom is a "multi-camera" sitcom, which means it's essentially produced like a stage play, with long scenes that each take place on one of a handful of major sets. The action is filmed with four cameras at once (hence, multi-camera), and each camera focuses on different actors or parts of the set. This allows the show to be filmed very, very quickly, because every take is being filmed four times. Most multi-camera sitcoms are also filmed in front of live studio audiences, who add laughter to the soundtrack.

In contrast to the multi-camera sitcom is the "single-camera" sitcom, which is the most popular form of TV comedy right now. Single-camera sitcoms are filmed more like miniature movies; most scenes are short, and many shows will leave their soundstages to film out in the world. Because they don't film in front of a studio audience, their stories can maintain a quicker pace, with far more scenes. Producers can add energy via editing; they don't have to rely on performances.

The main thing that makes a multi-camera sitcom work is time. While a single-camera sitcom can more easily make do with shorter episodes, the multi-cam needs space for scenes to spread out, for the cast to establish chemistry. It needs room to play, in other words, and the more time a series has to give over to advertising, the more it loses in storytelling.

But Mom's stories never end. Each episode introduces a rough situation — in this one, it's the marriage of Marjorie, played by the terrific Mimi Kennedy — and then spins out a few scenes around that situation. By episode's end, however, the show has twisted into some other story entirely. That story leads into the next week's episode, which then turns toward something else.

Mom is serialized, but only loosely so. You can jump into any episode and pick up on what's happening without having seen all of the others (though it helps). The real reason for Mom's continuous story is that the series is about two situations — recovering from a crippling addiction and struggling with money — that never, ever end. The stories don't end, because people never stop grappling with these issues.

Mom mixes comedy with tragedy without making it seem forced

Marjorie's wedding on Mom.
Marjorie gets married on Mom.

What makes "Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride" such a fine example of Mom at its best is the way its pivot point turns from the sweet comedy of a wedding between two older people to the dark drama of Jodi (Emily Osment), a young recovering addict who relapses and overdoses on heroin. The scene where Jodi's death is announced barely even deals with the aftermath of the tragedy, because the characters are headed to Marjorie's wedding reception and must resolve to act happy there, so as not to ruin Marjorie's day.

When multi-camera sitcoms push for these serious moments, they can feel like so-called Very Special Episodes because of the important issues they address. But because Mom remains mired in the milieu of the day-by-day process of living post-addiction, it never feels gimmicky when bad things happen, or when characters struggle to keep their lives on track. Drama and comedy mix elegantly on Mom, just as they did on great 1970s sitcoms like All in the Family or The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The series is also notable for becoming a kind of way station for great actresses who don't have other jobs at the moment. Anna Faris and Allison Janney, as the daughter and mother at the series' center, are so good at what they do and have laid such a strong foundation that a wide variety of funny women have been able to build atop it with their own complementary performances.

In this episode alone, there's only one major speaking role for a man — Marjorie's fiancé and eventual husband Victor. Meanwhile, the episode is dominated by the interplay among Faris, Janney, Kennedy, Beth Hall, Jaime Pressly, and Rhea Perlman (as Victor's uptight sister), as well as Osment, who appears in early scenes.

Though the show has several male regulars, it's drifted more and more toward this female-centric version of itself as time has passed, and it's only improved as a result. Much of the credit is surely due to Mom co-creator Gemma Baker, whose name is on nearly every script the show produces (including this one) and whose vision of the series — as a story of women gaining strength from simply being around each other — has grown more focused with every season. What started out as a show trying to balance a family story and a work story and a recovering addict story is mostly just the lattermost one now — and all the better for it.

The lives of recovering addicts who are women don't occupy a ton of space in pop culture (though, oddly enough, Netflix's new series Love tackled this very sort of character in the same week that Mom produced this standout episode), and there are still moments when Mom is either too crass or confused to make its greater point. The show probably still has a few too many characters, something "Diabetic Lesbians" makes all the clearer when many of the series regulars simply don't appear.

But it's also a deeply humane exploration of what it means to try to restart your life. And by acknowledging that recovery is a step-by-step process that never ends, Mom has accidentally found a way to breathe new life into the sitcom storytelling process. Life doesn't happen in easily digestible 20-minute chunks. And neither does Mom.

Mom airs Thursdays at 9 pm Eastern on CBS. Previous episodes can be watched on CBS All Access.