February 26, 2016

As the man behind Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory and Mike & Molly, Chuck Lorre should, by all rights, be dismembered, his decapitated head hung like a logo in the corner of all future CBS comedies to warn of what will happen to creators of such mass appeal muck.

But I’m willing to order a stay of execution. Lorre is also the man who oversaw the best seasons of Roseanne , and created one of the finest, most nuanced sitcoms of all time – Grace Under Fire.

These blue collar shows dealt with alcoholism, domestic abuse, poverty, non-nuclear families and homosexuality long before it was acceptable. Breaking down doors and challenging stereotypes, they avoided reactionary sentiment and delved into the reality of life on the skids.

Grace Under Fire, in particular, followed a female worker at an oil refinery who tries to maintain a relationship with the man who beat her, and his family that sided with him. Economically she had no other choice.

But they were never cast simply as the villains of the piece. Lorre wrote complex relationships with deep roots. While the comedy was often salty, it was also, explicitly, the only way these people knew how to exist in a world where one foot was always on the gallows.

None of today’s transgressive comedies could exist had it not first. And none of the comedian’s who’ve had their own shows since have come close to reaching their emotional heft.

But dealing with a troika of supposedly demonic leading ladies (he also created the underrated Cybil) drove Lore to drink- and then on to work that was mediocre, misogynistic and devoid of any social or comic stimulus.

Roasting up the ratings, but dragged backwards over the critical coals, the peace he found working with uncomplicated, unexciting performers, was shattered when Charlie Sheen, star of Two and a Half Men, imploded.

It is from these creative ashes,that the phoenix that is Mom rises. Lorre comes full circle, revisiting much of the themes of his earlier (better) work, perhaps drawing on the hell Sheen unleashed along with all his Tiger Blood.

Bonnie (Allison Janney) and Christy (Anna Farris) are recovering alcoholics, an estranged mother and daughter, who- thanks to dire financial straits- and the impregnation of Violet (Christy’s 16-year old daughter) end up moving in together.

Bonnie was never the best mother and seems perplexed by the bitterness her daughter still holds for her. “While other moms were cooking dinner, you were cooking Meth” she says in the first episode.(“Other wise known as working,” Bonnie airly throws back).

Having clung to the security blanket that is her mothers failings for so long, now her past and present responsibilities are cooped up under one roof, Christy can’t run from her own. The home truths that emerge make for some spiky comedy.

As with Grace Under Fire, Mom draws strength from these unvarnished truths. Christy may stew at how her mother treated her, but its ‘granny’ her children are turning to with their problems, burned by Christy’s own past behavior as a drunken, stripper. Baxter (Breaking Bad’s Badger) may be her stoner ex-husband. He may never pay child support for the young son they had together. But he is also the one who was there for the kids when Christy was not.

Mom is- first and foremost, a show about the power of letting go of past furies. The central conceit- about whether Violet is doomed to learn from- or follow in, Bonnie and Christy’s footsteps, quickly develops in to something stronger. Questions about forgiveness and acceptance are given equal weight to the uproarious shenanigans addicts face getting through the day.

In seasons 2 & 3 Kevin Pollock (as Christy’s father) and Ellen Burstyn (as Bonnie’s mother) turn up to deepen the back story and embolden the hurt.

But the shows best scenes often involve the other women from AA who are there to provide a shoulder to cry on, a kick to the keister and a story, that- depending on the episode, will leave you choking back the LOLs… or the sobs.

Janney and Farris are revelatory, creating an instantaneous connection, between each other and the audience, so that the bumps in their recovery bruise us too.

And the roaster of supporting female talent –Octavia Spencer, Mimi Kennedy, Jamie Presley and Beth Hall, makes Mom perhaps the most feminist show on TV. There are relapses, overdoses, deaths and familial rejections.

As the laugh track softens you up, the reality of the perilous situation these women face slugs you in the gut.

Emotionally bilious, the genuine love and affection, the need for family (be that by blood or by abstinence), is the antacid that settles the cruder, broader strokes,hungover from Lorre’s revolting recent back catalogue.

There’s no doubt that the exceptional pairing of Farris (terrific, as always) and Janney (who appears to be having the time of her life) help anchor an extremely rocky first season. But if Mom is Lorre’s attempts to make amends, the 9th step in his recovery from an abusive creative period, than I’m more than willing to accept.


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