I guess the pattern on Mom is going to be one episode for the creative side, then one for the suits, as if the show were trying out some sort of whacked-out variation on Steven Soderbergh’s filmmaking career. The show has been alternating broad episodes filled with sex gags with smaller, more thoughtful episodes about Christy and Bonnie’s attempts to deal with the world of a recovering addict. The latter version of the show is still finding itself, but shows promise. The former version of the show is… well, I don’t know. It’s more forthrightly funny than the latter version of the show, but it’s not so funny that it’s something I would ever go out of my way to watch. At best, it’s just sort of raunchily pleasant, like a gender-flipped version of Two And A Half Men, as described by my colleague Phil Dyess-Nugent. (In general, I agree with Phil a lot on this show, though I think Anna Faris is doing a really great job, which seems to be the divide between our opinions in its entirety.)
This is driven home by “Corned Beef And Handcuffs,” which is basically nothing more than a long, raunchy gag about how much Chef Rudy wants to sleep with Bonnie and how she’s only too happy to oblige him—only to find out that he didn’t feel the same way as she did after their sexual encounter. (He definitely liked the sex, but he tries not to have sex with the same woman more than once, because he is a sitcom character written by people who’ve met a million variations on this guy among the douchebags of the Los Angeles area and nowhere else.) Christy takes it poorly when she learns that he’s going to break her mother’s heart. Bonnie takes that poorly, and she stalks off to his house with a baseball bat, where she smashes up his priceless bottles of wine in this week’s “Allison Janney could make reading your grandmother’s obituary funny” segment.
Watching all of this made me think of Soap, because when Allison Janney left the house with that baseball bat, I was struck with the sudden certainty that she was going to kill Chef Rudy, and that was how the show was going to thin out the cast. Now, I don’t know that Soap would have ever done something quite that bad (i.e., have Katherine Helmond bludgeon a man to death with a baseball bat), but it feels in the vague realm of something that show could have made funny. So that made me think about if there would have been a way to just reveal that Bonnie’s character has been a serial killer all of this time, and that, once again, seemed like something Soap could have done. In general, today’s multi-camera sitcoms lack wildness and unpredictability, and Mom very much fits this bill, even in its better incarnation of itself. Here, when Rudy’s been established as a wine nut and Bonnie grabs that baseball bat, the only question is how many bottles she’s going to smash.
Again, this is a pretty funny sequence. When Bonnie talks about juggling wine bottles and drops all three before saying, “Guess I’m not very good,” it’s good stuff, and I even liked the way everything kept escalating until Rudy was sucking wine off of her toe. (That’s not something you’re going to see on TV a whole hell of a lot.) But it’s the boring, safe, conventional version of this show, the one that we get every other week that feels like the series giving CBS a whole bunch of crazy stuff it can stick in the promos. Everybody involved seems to be on board with this—in that they’re all dutifully pitching their performances all the way to the cheap seats—but it’s a harder version of the show to talk about critically because it’s basically just more of the same.
More of the same isn’t the worst thing in the world. That describes probably 95 percent of TV, including some shows I really, really like. (Parks & Recreation spent about 18 months as a “more of the same” show, and it was still really funny. I think it may have turned an interesting corner thanks to recent events, about which I won’t say more for fear of spoiling.) But it’s still a little disappointing when a show that has another gear—particularly a new one that is just figuring out all it can do—retreats to the relative safety of something like this. I think there was some business in there about developing Rudy’s character—he’s from Boston!—but that all falls apart in the face of French Stewart sucking on Allison Janney’s toe (which, again, really must be seen to be believed, like Mt. Rushmore).
So there’s a lot of “in theory” to be enjoyed and liked in “Corned Beef.” In theory, it’s the right thing to spend more time on throwing lots of jokes out there. In theory, it’s the best idea for these middle episodes to expand the supporting cast, as they have been the last few weeks with episodes focusing on Baxter, Marjorie, and now Rudy. And in theory, it’s a good idea to keep playing to the show’s strengths of having Janney go way, way over the top and find her ability to play in some of the same territory that Bea Arthur made her name for. And I don’t even want every episode to be about the recovery group or about how hard it is to be a former addict. Little grace notes like Bonnie telling Rudy that she never drinks are enough to keep the show grounded in that sense.
But when Mom visits the other half of its personality, I want it to be more than just some raunchy gags and some moments where the show lets Janney smash stuff with a baseball bat. The shows Mom is closest kin to—Roseanne and One Day At A Time and Grace Under Fire and maybe Maude—were all shows that could cut loose with a good, wacky episode. But they weren’t episodes that felt like they’d been turned out by a cookie-cutter machine at some sitcom factory like this one has. They were episodes that really dug into the characters, that forced them to think of some funny situations that might have happened to them. What’s dispiriting about “Corned Beef” isn’t that it turns the show back into a big, broad comedy again. No, what’s dispiriting about it is that it doesn’t have the guts to go full Soap, to try something really and truly wild and off the wall. Instead, it’s content to just do what Chuck Lorre sitcoms have always known how to do.
- Chef Rudy thinks that Luke is very pretty. It’s not the cleverest of gags to direct at a guy with long hair, but French Stewart makes a minor meal out of it.
- Stewart has been doing that with a lot of stuff he’s been handed this season. I also liked the way he would slip into his Boston accent.
- The end of this sentence is my 1,200th word.