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Mike & Molly debuts tonight on CBS at 9:30 p.m. Eastern.

The first half of Mike & Molly is the best new comedy of the season. The second half is arguably the worst. Whether or not the show becomes a new Two and a Half Men (the show it follows) or a new Big Bang Theory (the show it's replacing) will largely depend on whether the show's writers skew more toward the first half or the second. Unfortunately, without additional episodes to watch, there's no real way to figure out which direction the series is headed. Indeed, if there's a lesson to learn from Mike & Molly and this season's new comedies in general, it's that it's usually a good idea to treat the characters in your new sitcom with a modicum of respect. You can hate them if you like, but if that's the case, you'd better be one of the best damn sitcom writers in history. The writers of Mike & Molly are not that.


The first half of Mike & Molly is surprisingly charming. It's not going to set the world afire with laughter, but it captures a sort of whimsical, romantic tone that very few television shows are using right now. Billy Gardell plays Mike, an overweight Chicago police officer, who constantly struggles against a diet that always seems to be defeating him. Melissa McCarthy plays the also overweight Molly, a teacher who struggles with the same sort of diet and a family that's more supportive of her just giving up and accepting her weight than her weight loss efforts. The two meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, and the sparks fly. That the sparks are believable is a testament to how well-cast this show is. Gardell and McCarthy are sweet and winning both together and separately. McCarthy's gentle goofiness contrasts well with Gardell's wry self-deprecation, and the romance between the two seems as heaven-sent as the show insists it is.

Gardell and McCarthy aren't the only two solid actors here. Swoosie Kurtz plays Molly's mother, Joyce, and reminds everyone watching why she's a goddamn national treasure. (An early line from Kurtz about how similar Molly is to her father is the episode's funniest moment, almost purely thanks to Kurtz's delivery.) Reno Wilson stays on just the right side of irritating as Mike's partner, Carl. Nyambi Nyambi is fun as the proprietor of the local hang-out Mike and Carl frequent. Only Katy Mixon - so good on Eastbound and Down a few years ago - doesn't work in the role of Molly's sister, though that's as much due to the character she plays, which is more bundle of quirks than believable person, as it is anything else. If nothing else, this show would be a reminder of how good co-executive producer Chuck Lorre is at finding funny, believable actors that wouldn't pop up on most other shows. (McCarthy, for instance, has been playing the quirky, overweight best friend for years now, and it's time she was given a lead role to show off all she's capable of. Lorre deserves credit for giving it to her.)

Let's call the first half of the pilot the Mark Roberts half, after the show's creator, then. It's the half that lays out the general premise and who all of the characters are, and it has something like an original comic voice, vital in a comedy pilot. It doesn't rely too heavily on a gimmicky premise. It's mostly content to gently set up the characters, give them a few funny moments, and coast on the charm of the actors. The best word to describe it - the word all reviews will likely over-use in describing it - is "sweet." This is a show that likes all of the people in it and thinks they're worth spending time with. It's not perfect, and it has a few bad cases of pilot-itis (wherein it tries to put everything in place), but it slides by nicely enough, and it provides a nice contrast to the show before it, the crude, simplistic Two and a Half Men.


But Roberts isn't the only man in charge here. The other man is Chuck Lorre, a consummate comedy professional who knows exactly what makes a comedy a hit (interesting and believable character relationships) but also knows that what the audience - and the networks - really want is a long string of lowest common denominator jokes, pitched right at the cheap seats. The entire first half of the pilot makes it seem as if there's a vein throbbing on Lorre's head, ready to erupt at any second. It's easy to picture him pacing about the writers' room, looking at the script, saying, "This show's never gonna be a hit if it's a sweet romantic comedy! This show's about FAT PEOPLE. And you know what's funny? FAT PEOPLE FALLING DOWN." Right around the midpoint, then, fat people start falling over, the tone swerves wildly toward the broad, and there's a sense of the show trying to pretend to CBS that what it will really be about is laughin' at the fatties. That abrupt tonal shift probably got the show on TV, but what could potentially make the show special is in danger of being drowned out by it.

It's easy to be mad at Lorre for his success, but the guy knows what works on TV. He's worked on any number of shows that were legitimately terrific - like Roseanne - and any number of shows that weren't perfect but had interesting elements in them that made them worth watching - like Cybill and The Big Bang Theory. But his own worst impulses often defeat him. He has a tendency to make shows about inherently lovable characters with niggling, tiny flaws, fill them with terrific actors, and then spend all of his time in the pilot standing back and pointing at the flaw while laughing uproariously. What's interesting about Mike & Molly isn't that it's a show about two fat people; it's that it's a show about two people who find love when they were pretty sure they'd never be worthy of it. It's about the weird intersection between kind of hating yourself and then realizing someone else thinks you're pretty great the way you are. Yet it's all Lorre can do to not wander into frame, push Gardell through a wall, then chuckle, "Hey, Kool-Aid Man!" (Obviously, Roberts bears responsibility for this as well, as the episode's writer, but the shift in tone is so jarring, and the latter half of the episode is so much like other deeply flawed Lorre projects that it's hard not to speculate.)

Despite the low-ish grade it's receiving, Mike & Molly is well worth checking out, at least for its first 15 minutes or so. (Tune out right after the first commercial break, and you should be fine.) These are fun characters, played by skilled actors, and it's easy to suspect that once the season wears on and Lorre returns to turning Big Bang into a Thursday night hit or dealing with Charlie Sheen's legal troubles, the show might become one of the better comedies on TV. Certainly, this interview with Roberts suggests he has interesting ideas for where to take the show. Plus, between the edit of the pilot CBS sent out to critics in early summer and the one it sent out a week ago, one of the most egregious "fat people fall over!" gags was cut. And to its credit, CBS seems almost ashamed of the "fat people falling over" jokes in its promos, instead using mostly material from the first half of the episode. So maybe there's hope.


And yet probably not. At some point, there's going to be the "Mike and Molly have sex for the first time" episode, and it's far too easy to picture that being such a colossal miscalculation that it drags the show down into a giant black hole of terribleness. Mike & Molly spends so much time skating on thin ice that it's not hard to be scared of the guy standing off to the side and yelling, "Hey, wouldn't the fat people fall through the ice and drown? Because that … that'd be funny."