There are two ways to describe Mom, a new sitcom that premieres tonight on CBS. One: a dark comedy starring the perennially undercast Anna Faris as a recovering alcoholic and single mother revisiting a fraught relationship with her own recovering addict mother, played by the always impeccable Allison Janney. The other: a multicamera sitcom with a laugh track from mediocrity mogul Chuck Lorre, the man responsible for the perfectly fine Big Bang Theory, the boilerplate Mike and Molly, and the endlessly abhorrent Two and a Half Men. One of these describes a show I would like to watch. One describes a show I would rather stub my toe, hard, than watch. At least that pain only lasts a few minutes.
Sitting down with Mom, I was smugly certain that I was in for a flattened-big-toe experience. In recent years, CBS has been an excellent talent trapper, casting likable and skilled actresses like Kat Dennings, Melissa McCarthy, and, this year, Margo Martindale to do rote (or worse) work for scads of cash in blah sitcoms that will run forever. I do not blame anyone for taking the syndication money (please, someone offer me syndication money!), but I don’t want to watch Anna Faris and Allison Janney take it. Happily, if unexpectedly, Faris and Janney are doing more than just cashing in. Mom is unmistakably a Chuck Lorre show, but it’s the best one he’s made in years, with a thorny, class-aware sensibility that balances out the hacky punch lines. Mom may count “I saw you going down on a Big Mac” as a big laugh line, but it’s sloppier and grittier, at least through one episode, than most of the fall’s new shows.
As Mom begins, Christy (Faris), a server at a posh restaurant, is 118 days sober. She’s never graduated high school and is supporting two kids on her own: a sexually active teen daughter who can’t stand her and an adorable son whose ne’er-do-well father (Matt Jones, Breaking Bad’s Badger, playing a guy named Baxter) doesn’t pay child support. At an A.A. meeting she tells the assembled addicts, “I didn’t want to turn into my mother, but I did anyway,” only to run into her mother Bonnie (Janney) at the same meeting. “Don’t you think it’s time you stopped blaming your mother for everything?” Bonnie asks. Christy facepalms.
In the scene that follows, Faris and Janney go to a diner for a talk that’s a perfect demonstration of why hiring good talent is worth it. Faris slouches in her seat, five minutes with her mother being enough to turn Christy into a petulant teenager. Bonnie, flirting with the much younger male server, is smooth, implacably confident, and new-agey elegant. As Christy says in the A.A. meeting, “Some mothers teach you how to cook. Mine taught me how to beat a cavity search and still feel like a lady.” Bonnie seems like a lady, but one who narcissistically believes that the mother-daughter relationship is between equals. She thinks that her wrongs as a mother are no worse than Christy’s bad behavior as a teenager. This is a relationship that cannot be easily patched up and Mom knows it. The ending of the first episode is wonderfully abrupt and unsappy. Watching Janney and Faris face off, Janney gracefully volleying psychological damage at a frazzled Faris, whose returns are all gumption and no composure, is the best match of the new season.
With Mom’s good performances and a script that isn’t full of mean-spirited jokes about women and/or fat people, it’s possible to appreciate that Lorre, unlike many sitcom-makers, is extremely attentive to class. Mom is a companion piece to one of Lorre’s earlier shows, Grace Under Fire, which from 1993 to 1998 starred Brett Butler as another single, working-class mother recovering from alcoholism. (Lorre also worked for many years on Roseanne.) A pretty succinct summary of what has happened to the American economy in the 15 years between Grace and Mom is that newly divorced Grace worked a blue-collar job at an oil refinery, while never-married Christy works at a restaurant, a steady manufacturing job about as real to her as a career as a movie star. If she misses a day of work to go see her son’s talent show, she just doesn’t get paid.
Mom is one of the very few sitcoms on television— CBS’s Two Broke Girls and Mike & Molly, Fox’s Raising Hope, and ABC’s The Middle being the four others—to feature characters who are not thoughtlessly affluent. On most sitcoms, financial realities don’t intrude, and to the extent that they do, they mean that characters move in with very comfortable relatives. It’s the irony of Mom that though it doesn’t look or sound as classy as its single-camera competition, it’s the one dealing seriously with class. Just like Faris, whose blond good looks and helium chirp have had her mistaken for a ditz nearly her whole career, Mom is more than what it appears. The hectoring laugh track grates, but don’t let it fool you, this show’s got brains.