I’m running out of ways to say, “Hey, that was a pretty interesting episode of Mom!” but… “Zombies And Cobb Salad” was a pretty interesting episode of Mom. I still don’t know if the show will pull all of its elements together into the same show—the visit to the restaurant in tonight’s episode sticks out like a sore thumb for how little it feels like anything else—but there’s a loose, melancholy vibe that the show is building that I really dig, even if the joke writing could stand to be a little sharper. (That said, I laughed a handful of times at this episode, though mostly polite chuckles, thanks to line delivery or something.) This entire episode is about how hard it is to get through life kicking you in the face when you don’t have your addictions to fall back on, and its centerpiece scene is just three women sitting around, talking about how hard it is to stay clean. It’s an impressive scene, and if the rest of the episode isn’t up to it, well, I’m impressed the show even attempted it at all.
The multi-camera sitcom has too often been where ambition goes to die in recent TV seasons. The last truly ambitious, true multi-cam, I think, was Lucky Louie, which is more notable for being a noble failure than anything else. How I Met Your Mother tried new things with the format as well, but it’s not a strict multi-cam and uses many tricks of single-camera comedies to make sure its editing rhythms are precise. For the most part, your Big Bang Theorys and your Sean Saves The Worlds aren’t really trying to reinvent the wheel. They’re trying to bring back comfort food from decades ago, and if that means that they’re simply repeating stuff that used to work in a slightly different guise, so be it. (Standard disclaimer that I actually think Big Bang Theory is a pretty good show and has had some really good episodes when it’s gotten to cooking along.)
Mom, however, for all its mess, is trying to be about something, and the longer the show runs, the more it seems that that something is the cost of living your life in the shadow of a monster that might swallow you whole all over again any day you wake up. To fight against addiction is a constant struggle. There will be good days and bad days, and on the bad days, you need friends, family, and your support network more than ever, and you can’t always count on them. “Zombies And Cobb Salad” puts Bonnie through that very scenario, as she loses first her job, then her car, and then her apartment, reducing her to crashing at Christy’s place and turning into someone who looks like a fright mask version of herself. That would be all well and good, because Allison Janney has fun with this sort of broad comedy, but what takes the episode to a place where I think it’s a genuinely interesting episode of TV that anybody with interest in the medium would do well to check out is the way that it lets Janney play the dramatic beats of this as well.
The shows Mom is most reminiscent of are the great ’70s sitcoms of Norman Lear, which went on to influence blue-collar sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s, particularly Roseanne. There was a moment in tonight’s episode—as Bonnie and her two friends, Marjorie and Regina, sit in Christy’s living room and talk about the ways that their lives haven’t turned out like they’ve wanted, the ways that their addictions have kicked their ass—that genuinely felt like something that might have worked on one of those earlier sitcoms. And I consider that high praise indeed. The moment when Janney breaks down about how hard she had it as a single mother—but also how hard she must have made life for Christy—is a stellar piece of acting from Janney (no duh) but also a really solid bit of scripting, using the unnatural and stagelike rhythms of the multi-camera sitcom, as well as the format of a recovery group meeting, to essentially let Janney deliver a straight-up monologue. It’s a little surprising and very nicely done.
The thing about those ’70s sitcoms and about Roseanne was that they weren’t afraid to be dramatic, to let the laughs drop out to better get to know a character. Joke machine sitcoms can be terrific fun, but they also create a kind of distance between the audience and the characters. Moments of drama, of pathos, of, yes, sentimentality, at least when not pushed too hard, can work in this format, and they can create a bond between audience and characters that becomes unshakable. (Think of how Cheers traded in on character drama it established back in its first season so often in later years, even after it largely stopped doing such dramatic beats.) I don’t know that Mom is yet as successful as some of those shows at this, but it’s basically the only sitcom on right now that’s even playing at this game, give or take a handful of Big Bang Theory episodes. And even those are essentially light-hearted. Mom isn’t afraid to go dark.
And I mean dark. After Bonnie goes through all of that and attempts to apologize to her daughter by barging into her workplace (in a scene with some very broad, silly pot jokes that seem to be there because all involved got nervous that they weren’t giving the audience some broad humor to laugh at and/or giving French Stewart anything to do), she sits next to Christy in a meeting, and we finally hear from the character who’s ostensibly the lead of this show. We expect Christy to give an inch, to let her mom know that she understands how hard this is, and she’s feeling compassion toward her. Instead, Christy tells her mom that she’s really pissed off at everything Bonnie has put her through. It’s a funny moment, to be sure, and it’s played as one. Here are the characters returning to the status quo! How hilarious!
But it’s also a sad moment. There’s an attempt at a little light comedy in the tag, but this is the fundamental core of this show: The people on it have disappointed each other so often that there’s little room for them to convince each other they’ve changed, even as they want to show off how much they’ve grown. Bonnie and Christy can’t solve their issues in a day, and the journey from addict to a more whole person is one that’s never over, just as it’s never over for any of us. Mom has way too much going on, and I wish it were slightly funnier (though it’s capable of surprising, dark humor), but so long as it keeps building this melancholy core, I’ll keep watching and hoping for the best.
- Janney’s performance as the fright-wig version of Bonnie is admirably unglamorous.
- Look, I like Octavia Spencer, and I can’t wait for Octavia Spencer is Murder, She Wrote, but it’s very strange that she’s playing Regina, a character who seems completely pointless and unformed.
- And, look! We got to a little bit over 1,200 words! Look out, Mom! The next step is me writing a review of you in the form of an epic poem!