“Mom”—With new shows debuting at a record rate on platforms that didn’t exist 15 minutes ago, it’s easy for critics 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.
It’s tough to imagine a more winning duo than the stars of “Mom,” in which Anna Faris plays Christy, a recovering addict and single mom, and Allison Janney plays 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 a comedic trope, they were more interested in the comedy, and drama, of their characters getting better.
With the same result for their show. The queasy joke of a familial twin set — not only are Christy and Bonnie both alcoholics, they both became single mothers at a very early age — is continually made, but increasingly as an entry point for empathy and understanding as much as a punchline.
Familial patterns are real, as every alcoholic who is also the child of an alcoholic knows, but sometimes that can be an advantage.
Now, in the middle of the third season, both Christy and Bonnie are sober, and learning that this is not the end of the tale. Life continues to happen and sobriety takes work. 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 Pressley.
Through these characters, and many others, Bonnie and Christy have slowly learned to live outside of themselves, while “Mom” has, in it’s 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 relapse.
Yet, defying all odds, “Mom” remains 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.
A similarly emotional episode is heading our way this week, followed by a PSA about the realities of addiction that stars the “Mom” cast. Though this show is in no danger of downplaying the dangers of the disease so many of its characters face, it’s always nice to remind the audience that, while alcoholics may discuss their pasts with rueful humor, none of it was funny at the time.
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 dances 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, like cliff edges, is not always solid and safe. That sometimes, instead of clutching on to what we’ve always known, we need to just let go. CBS, Thursdays, 9 p.m.
“New Girl”—In case you didn’t hear, Megan Fox joined the cast of “New Girl” last week, and it turned out just fine! Better than fine! Though Fox’s Reagan is no Jess — Jess remains sequestered on jury duty (translation: star Zooey Deschanel remains on maternity leave) — she has an astringent deadpan that adds just the right amount of sting to the group’s often overwhelming adorableness.
Presented as both bombshell and no-nonsense pharmaceutical rep, Reagan is in town for an extended business trip and, after much sturm and high jinks (it turns out that she and Ceci hooked up years ago at the MTV beach house!), decides to rent Jess’ room.
It may be the first time in television history that a lead character has been even temporarily replaced, but if the rest of the season (Deschanel will return for the season finale) goes as well as Fox’s intro did, it may not be the last.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so they say, and the peril of group comedies like “New Girl” is stagnation. Even with guest characters circulating in and out, the exchanges and patterns become predictable, even silly. Fox's character appears to be the bucket of cold water almost every show could use after a few years. Fox, Tuesdays, 8 p.m.
“Outsiders”—“Sons of Anarchy” meets “Duck Dynasty;” “Justified” meets “Lost.” There are many ways to describe this story of a modern hillbilly clan sworn to protect their way of life at all costs, but the most accurate is “surprisingly good.” Anyone who’s lived in the more rural areas of the Appalachian Mountains knows that these sorts of families do exist, albeit not with the colorful and organized social mores and codes of conduct. But that’s what makes “The Outsiders” so fascinating — the idea of an alternative culture, with its own rituals and social order, growing up alongside modern society.
A threat from a coal company drives the narrative engine, along with clan tension between Big Foster (David Morse), its angry new leader, and Asa (Joe Anderson), who abandoned Shay Mountain for the outside world only to return. Early plot twists are often a bit forced and even silly, but like the best, most addictive television, “Outsiders” immerses the viewer in a world both completely different from and eerily similar to our own. WGN, Tuesdays, 9 p.m.
An earlier version of this piece misspelled Anna Faris' name as Farris.
Follow me @MaryMacTV