Monday, September 23, 2013

Pilot Review: Mom

Mom (Mondays at 9:30 on CBS; Premieres September 23)

Chuck Lorre has a long string of successes at CBS: Mike & Molly, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, the highest-rated show on broadcast television. Mom is his attempt at a fourth mega-hit, and it's a solid, if not always great, one. Falling somewhere below The Big Bang Theory in terms of laugh-out-loud moments, somewhere above Mike & Molly in terms of wit, and well above Two and a Half Men in terms of overall quality, Mom is a fun and often funny (imagine that!) vehicle for two very talented ladies.

Mom follows three generations of women dealing with their respective mothering issues. Christy (Anna Faris in her first role as a series regular) is a waitress at a high-end restaurant who got pregnant early and is on the verge of a breakdown because of it. She runs into her own mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), an overly cheery flirt, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting after being estranged for many years. The two try to mend their relationship, since Christy sees her own teenage daughter, Violet (Sadie Calvano, Melissa & Joey), going the way she once did toward a rebellious streak that got her knocked up.

To start with, this might be the funniest script of the fall season, full of snappy repartee between Janney and Faris, and some truly great one-liners (Christy tells a diner at her restaurant that pounded capon is "a castrated chicken they beat with a hammer"). The back-and-forth between the two moms is smart and unstrained, made all the more enjoyable by the performances. Faris is slightly more subdued than I'm used to seeing her be in film roles (Scary Movie, The House Bunny, Just Friends, The Hot Chick... you get the idea: she's usually insane), but it's a good choice for her beaten-down, totally-over-it character. Christy is stuck: with two kids, without a husband, in AA, without many real options for a new start. And she blames all her problems on Bonnie, who is a delightful foil for the dourness Christy sometimes exudes. Janney is all kinds of perfect as the chipper former addict who refuses to act her age. Whereas Christy sees her past as an embarrassment and a hurdle to overcome, Bonnie continues to see the bright side of things. When Christy tries to explain to Bonnie just what made her a bad mother, she says, "While other mothers were cooking dinner, you were cooking meth." Bonnie responds, with a smile, "Otherwise known as 'working.'" Their relationship is easily the best part of the pilot, and my only real criticism is that Janney shows up too late in the first episode. Janney is deliciously passive-aggresive, and once she shows up, things really start to mesh.

Until Bonnie's arrival, we are introduced to a slew of secondary characters, including Christy's boss and sometimes-lover Gabriel (Nate Corddry); the restaurant's crazy chef (French Stewart); Christy's kids, Roscoe (Blake Garret Rosenthal), who is probably the most intelligent character on the show, and Violet; and Violet's dim-witted boyfriend (Spencer Daniels). (There's also a really fun cameo from the star of one of Lorre's other shows.) It's the usual assortment of supporting players, a good mixture of crazy and stupid, just like every Chuck Lorre show. Speaking of which, Lorre has brought over two writers from his other shows, Gemma Baker (Two and a Half Men) and Eddie Gorodetsky (The Big Bang Theory), to help him out with Mom, so it comes across as a kind of mixture of the better elements of those two shows. It has the general acceptability of the former and the witty dialogue of the latter, but Mom still feels like its own animal because the strong, funny female characters are at the center, rather than on the periphery as in other Lorre series. It also has a sentimentality absent from Lorre's other creations, with the conceit of repairing broken parental relationships at its core.

Mom is far from perfect, however. Many of the jokes don't land, especially in the pilot's first half, and some of the supporting characters seem unnecessary so early in the show's development. Do we really need an extended scene in the restaurant's kitchen to kick off the show? Stewart's chef is particularly irritating, and Corddry's is neither here nor there as Gabe. These characters take up time and space where I'd rather see Allison Janney doing her thing. I get that it's all to set up Christy's life, since she is the center of the show, but she's not the most interesting part of the pilot. If Mom can focus more in the future on Christy's relationship with Bonnie, rather than primarily on Christy and the others in her life, it will be a great improvement. Still, as it stands, Mom is a strong addition to CBS's lineup that does well, for the most part, by its talented cast.

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