With new shows debuting at a record rate on platforms that didn't exist 15 minutes ago, it's easy for a critic to get distracted. Scrambling desperately just to keep up, we too often take for granted the established broadcast network series that continue to do terrific work week after week after week.
On Thursday, the CBS series "Mom" airs what the network has been positioning as a powerful and important episode. This type of marketing, often used to drum up ratings or Emmy potential, should be viewed with a large amount of skepticism. In this case, however, the network is right — it is a powerful and important episode, followed by a public service announcement addressing addiction. It's worth taking a moment to acknowledge an increasingly courageous series that manages to address difficult personal issues without forgetting its primary purpose — to make people laugh — or falling into the grim darkness favored by other "real world" comedies.
From the beginning, it was tough to imagine a more winning duo than the stars of "Mom": Anna Faris as Christy, a recovering addict and single mom; and Allison Janney as Bonnie, her even more troubled mother. And, indeed, Janney has won two Emmys for the role.
But if creators Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker are happy to embrace mother-daughter dysfunction as the series' keystone comedic trope, they were also interested in the comedy, and drama, of their characters getting better.
The queasy joke of a mother and daughter bonded by addiction, an active sexual life and early/single motherhood continues, but it is now an entry point for empathy and understanding as much as it is a punchline.
Familial patterns are real, as every alcoholic who is also the child of an alcoholic knows. But sometimes in the world according to "Mom," those patterns can be used to save the lives they threatened to destroy.
Now, in the middle of the third season, Christy and Bonnie are sober and learning that this is not the end of the tale. Life continues to happen, and sobriety takes constant work and occasional resets. Though their relationship remains the linchpin of the series, Bonnie and Christy now have a group of sober friends, including and especially Marjorie, played by the fabulous Mimi Kennedy, and the uptight Jill, played by Jaime Pressly.
Through these characters (and many others), Bonnie and Christy have slowly learned to live outside of themselves, while "Mom" has, in its own way, done the same. Not since "All in the Family" has a comedy dealt so specifically and effectively with the real troubles facing so many people — alcoholism, yes, but also cancer, domestic violence, gambling addiction, homelessness and death.
Yet, defying all odds, "Mom" remains very much a comedy, perfectly capturing the gallows humor of recovering addicts talking among themselves and reminding us that the choice between laughter and tears is not always clear-cut. Sometimes you need to cry and then laugh, or do both at the same time. A first-season story line in which Christy's daughter, Violet, became pregnant, and then decided to give the child to an adoptive family, was one of the most moving and mature explorations of the issue on television ever.
Thursday's episode is similarly emotional. Though "Mom" is never in danger of downplaying the dangers of the disease so many of its characters face, it's always important to remind the audience that, although alcoholics may discuss their pasts with rueful humor and other shows treat alcohol abuse as just another character quirk, the realities of addiction are the opposite of funny.
The beauty of "Mom" is that it refuses to stay in one place, even if that place is consistently delivering laughs. Far from the hot messes they were when we met them, Christy and Bonnie have matured to the point that they are offering help to others, sometimes reluctantly, often imperfectly, but always in a way that reflects actual human experience far more than moral message or easy-viewing sentiment.
Most comedy appears to dance on the edge of some cliff or another, teetering this way and that like a clown on a high wire before catching itself just in time to pull a flower out of its sleeve.
"Mom" likes those flowers too. But it is also not afraid to remind us that comedy is not always solid and safe. And sometimes, instead of clutching on to what we've always known, we need to just let go.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)