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The CBS sitcom Mom tackles rape in an episode that stays a little too pat

The series’ attempts to filter the messiness of life through a comedic setup usually pay off. What happened this time?

Mom
Christy (Anna Faris, left) and Bonnie (Allison Janney) confront the many horrible things about the world in Mom. (It’s funny, we promise.)
CBS

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 April 23 through 29 is “A Cricket and a Hedge Made of Gold,” the 20th episode of the fourth season of CBS’s Mom.

The multi-camera sitcom is not known for being messy. The situations are compact, easy to deal with in 25 minutes or less. The studio audience is there to deflate any tension that arises with perfectly placed laughter. Even the jokes come at a steady clip, and if an episode goes for too long without them, it’s immediately noticeable as A Big Dramatic Storyline and/or A Very Special Episode (and sometimes one and the same).

For all four seasons it’s been on the air, Mom has attempted to smuggle some messiness into the broadcast TV comedy. It deals with situations that don’t go away, things like addiction and poverty and broken relationships. Its stories keep going, and with every season it shuffles its cast and setup a little bit, as if constantly evolving toward some best version of itself.

That messiness is what makes “A Cricket and a Hedge Made of Gold” both so interesting and so strange. It’s an episode dealing with the main character’s rape 16 years ago, something she’s kept so tightly bottled up that it’s only just coming up now. It grafts a one-and-done storyline onto that idea — a cricket gets into the house and drives everybody nuts — which might suggest that this story isn’t over, that this horrible moment in the past will now be a part of the show’s overall tapestry. Crickets are easily dealt with; the pain from sexual assault is not, especially when you’ve spent more than a decade minimizing that pain.

And yet I couldn’t escape the feeling, throughout, that the episode was simply bringing this up to give its lead actress a Big Moment, that it would be on to something else in the weeks to come. It speaks to the struggles of Mom as it moves into middle age.

This episode hides the main plot from viewers for a long time

It’s not uncommon for Mom episodes to start out as one thing and then shift to something else entirely once a revelation is made.

In “Cricket,” that means the episode begins with a fairly ironclad sitcom premise: Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy), the seen-it-all veteran of the characters’ addiction support group, loses it after her own sponsor falls off the wagon after 52 years of sobriety. She needs some time to herself, so the other characters, particularly Allison Janney’s Bonnie, decide to step in in her absence and help their friends with their assorted problems.

Mom
Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy) needs a break right when Christy needs her most.
CBS

On most sitcoms, this would result in the characters realizing all that Marjorie does for them and vowing to never take her for granted, or something like that. On Mom, it’s merely a setup for the other storyline, in which Christy (Anna Faris) unexpectedly sees her rapist at an AA meeting and finds her old emotions welling up all over again. Like the cricket, they were there, chirping away, bugging her, but she was never able to pin them down. (Yes, it’s a little too clean, but I can appreciate the way the cricket story gives the rest of the episode a coherent structure.)

Without Marjorie to call, Christy finds herself adrift. She tells her friends, then tells her own mother (Bonnie) that Viceroy Lights has returned. (Having never learned her rapist’s name, she assigned him the name of the cigarettes he smoked.) But she mostly obsesses over the cricket, tearing apart her apartment to find it.

It’s a big, meaty performance from Faris, whose face runs through the whole gamut of emotions when she finally calls Marjorie and hesitates to say anything about what’s happened, for fear of ruining her friend’s break. Most of the awards attention showered upon Mom has been aimed at perennial favorite Janney (who’s awesome), but Faris, best known pre-Mom for her loose, goofy film performances, has become one of TV’s best cool, collected centers. She’s always there with a sarcastic aside, while wacky adventures orbit around her.

I also like the way the episode isn’t afraid to confront that what happened to Christy happened when she was still an addict and still a stripper, that her rapist lured her into his bedroom with the promise of a line of cocaine. Even 10 years ago, most shows would include some element of, “Well, this is what happens when you lead a rough life!” in this storyline, but on Mom, there’s none of that. (The episode even obliquely acknowledges this when Christy says she never went to the police because she thought they’d never believe a drunk stripper.) Christy is doing her best to confront her addictions; her rape was in no way her fault, nor did it stem from her personal problems. It was something done to her, by a man who continues to live with impunity outside of jail.

And yet for all this meaty messiness, there’s something a little too neat about “Cricket.”

Sometimes Mom raises issues it doesn’t entirely know what to do with

The last time I wrote about Mom, it was for a similarly weighty episode, this one dealing with a recurring character’s death. But death is exactly the sort of thing that can fit neatly into the multi-camera sitcom template, because death is final. You can make death neat and closed off. The funeral happens, the characters mourn, and life goes on. You can’t make trauma neat. It reverberates.

This, in its own way, is the central thesis of Mom. The characters are constantly trying to put the bad things they did while in the thrall of their addiction behind them, or they’re trying to make amends for bad things they’ve done to each other in the present. It’s a show about how hard it is to live under the twin specters of addiction and poverty, even if the latter has been slightly deemphasized over the course of the show. (Weirdly, this seems to happen to lots of working-class sitcoms.)

And yet the climactic moment of this episode, in which Christy gets up in front of an AA group that includes her rapist and talks about what happened to her, strikes me as slightly false, even though Faris plays the hell out of it. For the first time in the episode, Christy says the word “rape” (she says it’s the first time she’s used it to define what happened to her, period). And she says that talking about it and shining a spotlight on what’s happened to her, and to so many other women she knows, is how she’s going to try to make it right, since her rapist can’t go to jail.

Mom CBS

In the very next scene, Christy has caught the cricket in a jar, and the symbolic implication is clear: By being open about our traumas and talking about them, we can begin to tackle them. And, yes, that’s true, but actually tackling those problems can take years and years and years, probably involving professional help and a large support network of friends and family. The characters on Mom are already dealing with so many other ghosts of the past that it’s hard to imagine the show revisiting this one with the sort of focus it might require.

I could be wrong about this. Mom has frequently surprised me by returning to potentially rich storylines long after they seemed to have been abandoned, particularly when it comes to the often bleak family histories of both Christy and Bonnie. This, too, could become fodder for the show’s attempt to wrestle the messiness of reality into a format filled with punchlines and audience laughter.

But there’s something so pat about the episode’s resolution that it feels like what Mom never feels like at its best: a Very Special Episode, where a problem is raised and dealt with in the course of 22 minutes.

Much closer to the series’ heart is what Bonnie says when Christy reveals her rapist was at the meeting, then declines to identify who he is: “I could just go back there and punch every guy in that room. I’m sure they’ve all done something to deserve it.”

The characters on Mom are always confronting the past, sometimes because of what they’ve done and sometimes because of what’s been done to them. Solving them rarely means talking around them. Often, it means tackling them head on, with friends and fisticuffs on your side.

Mom airs Thursdays at 9 pm Eastern on CBS.

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