In last week’s penultimate episode of Mom’s second season, most of the show’s major characters were sitting in a circle at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where Bonnie Plunkett (played by Allison Janney) had to make an amends after falling hard off the wagon. “It’s not easy to say this,” she began, “but I lied to you guys. A lot. Even about stuff I didn’t have to. And I’m not proud about that.” Then, after a brief pause, she continued, “I mean, I’m proud of how well-crafted the lies were. Because, y’know, doing anything well is its own reward.”
That line is quintessential Mom: frank, funny, and rooted in real pain. In its second season, Mom has kicked the crap out of its main characters week after week, and they’ve come out of it with their wits sharpened. Christy Plunkett (Anna Faris) got herself and her family evicted from their house because she gambled away their rent money. After reconnecting with Christy’s long-absent father Alvin (Kevin Pollack), Bonnie nearly sacrificed her sobriety when Alvin died of a heart attack in their bed, mid-lovemaking. Bonnie later wrenched her back and got hooked on painkillers, threatening everything she’d rebuilt with her daughter. And as the Plunketts have dealt with all of that, they’ve also tried to help their AA friends handle cancer, imprisonment, and a wavering commitment to the program. This season has been a rough ride.
It’s also been more joyous than a show about recovering addicts would typically be.
The key to Mom’s comedy is its physicality. This isn’t slapstick. The jokes are mostly verbal, and even somewhat deadpan, as the Plunketts and their friends grumble about their latest disappointments. But the humor pops because of the way Faris delivers her lines with wide, anxious eyes, looking like a silent-movie heroine; and because of the way Janney’s lanky frame has her towering over everyone else, imposing and indomitable. In one second-season storyline, the Plunketts’ friend Regina (Octavia Spencer) was released from jail—where she’d been serving time for embezzlement. When everything seemed to be breaking Regina’s way after she became a born-again Christian, Mom cut to Bonnie at church, waving her long skinny arms around while singing a gospel song, as though trying to force Jesus to bless her by out-rapturing everybody else in the congregation.
That scene fit with one of the major themes of this season: what people get, and what they deserve. Mom’s strong first season was largely about reconciliation, as a newly sober Bonnie reentered a newly sober Christy’s life for the first time in years, and the two women forged an uneasy trust, facilitated by their commitment to AA. In the early stages, a lot of Mom’s stories were driven by Christy’s lingering resentment over a childhood spent with a junkie scam-artist for a mother, and her guilt at how her own history of addiction had alienated her teenage daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano).
Throughout the second season though, Christy and Bonnie have watched their efforts to stay straight go largely unrewarded, while their friends and relatives have thrived. Regina was taken in by their insanely rich, unstable friend Jill (Jaime Pressly). The moody, ungrateful Violet got engaged to one of her college professors (David Krumholtz). Christy’s stoner ex-boyfriend Baxter (Matt L. Jones) cleaned up and got a good job working for his new girlfriend’s dad. But the rock of their social circle, Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy), suffered through breast-cancer treatments, and Bonnie and Christy were handed setback after setback. The message of Mom is that, for the Plunketts, sometimes sobriety itself has to be the victory, because there are very few other “wins.”
The show’s writers and ensemble keep finding ways to make this message not just palatable, but entertaining. Mom’s dialogue is snappy, but derives from the characters’ self-flagellation, and their sense deep down that maybe they should feel lousy, given what they’ve done to their bodies and their families. That’s where the above-mentioned “joyous” quality comes in. It’s not just that these actresses are having fun spitting harsh insults at each other (and at themselves), it’s that they grasp the motivation beneath the meanness. There’s real depth to these people they’re playing, which is all too rare in TV or movie comedy.
With all the (justified) attention being paid these days to series like Broad City and Inside Amy Schumer and how they’re redefining the images of women on television, it’s disappointing that so few cultural critics are engaging with Mom. Disappointing, but not surprising. Mom is an unapologetically conventional multi-camera sitcom, with laughter—which means it also has the kind of broad gags and theatrical pauses that leave space for laughter. Plus, it was co-created by Chuck Lorre, of Two And A Half Men and The Big Bang Theory fame. Lorre’s not hip, and he’s not an insurgent. He’s a mainstream TV writer-producer, and a cash cow for the super-successful CBS. He doesn’t need to be championed.
Still, more should be said about Lorre’s long record of working on shows like Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, and now Mom, which use familiar conventions to tell challenging stories about prickly, multi-dimensional women. These sitcoms don’t play it as safe as some may think. They create cluttered, realistic spaces for their characters, and use elliptical plotting that avoids easy “and now everything’s back to normal” endings. They also confront the complexities of American social stratification and class, honestly and consistently.
Lorre assembles good teams (his co-creators on Mom are Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker), and he lets them contribute. The credits on a typical Mom episode cite anywhere from four to six writers, a mix of men and women, who have shown a remarkable willingness to shake up the series’ premise. They’ve moved characters in and out and have even changed where the leads live. Mom reflects the Plunketts’ unsettled lives—and has remained fresh through its first two seasons—by staying in constant flux.
The larger point to all the shake-ups is that Bonnie and Christy have remained essentially the same: scrappy and stubborn, ashamed of their pasts but fighting for their futures. They’re magnificent comic creations, unlike any other on television right now. If Mom isn’t as much a part of the cultural conversation as it should be, that doesn’t diminish what it’s achieved this season in particular. Doing anything well is its own reward.