One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
Much of my take on Mom‘s season 4 premiere, which debuts this Thursday on CBS, is a reverberation of what I thought about the season 3 premiere last year. Although that might sound initially damning, it’s actually straight-up praise: I loved the show a year ago, and the year before that, and the year before that, when it premiered. Season 4 hasn’t reinvented the Mom wheel – take a street-level, taboo topic and find ways to tell funny, affecting stories related to it – but what it has done is iterate itself into what I’d call the best sitcom on television right now.
The source of the show’s appeal is easy to glance, since Anna Faris and Allison Janney are leading affairs, but Mom fans know its true addictive qualities come out of the stories it manages to succeed at telling within the confines of an otherwise traditionally predictable sitcom. Mom is really one of those rare shows that can have its Chuck Lorre cake (I counted at least 3 vagina euphemisms in the premiere, and probably missed just as many), and eat it too, because its best jokes are the ones stemming from the tangible trauma of its characters. As an added bonus, the new season is both a focused homage to long-term fans, and also a decent entry-point for newcomers who might miss references, but will get a nicely drawn realization of who every one of these characters are.
The 22-minute season 4 premiere doesn’t have anything as ravaging as the Jodi or Alvin plots from previous years, but it does place a confident step forward in terms of suggesting where everyone could go over the course of the season. For now, that means Bonnie Plunkett (Janney) has to figure out if living with new boyfriend Adam (William Fichtner) is worth the potential trouble it could bring to the honeymoon phase of their relationship. The two met over the telephone in last year’s most secretly adorable subplot, but Janney and Fichtner keep up their genuine chemistry in person as they navigate what being in one another’s lives every day actually means.
For Christy (Faris), it means avoiding her house as much as possible while her mom and Adam proceed to have sex in every part of it, and also realizing that it might be time for her to get back out on the market. She enlists on-the-mend gold digger Jill (Jaime Pressly) to be her wingman, and much of the premiere’s best moments come from Christy and Jill’s bickering back-and-forth banter as Christy attempts to find a date, with Jill subsequently “vag-blocking” her at every turn. Of course, in true Mom fashion, a few of Jill’s layers are peeled back by the end of the episode, forcing her to self-assess why she does what she does when surrounded by other women, and maybe start figuring out ways to get better.
That’s maybe the exact kernel of the reason why it’s so easy to fall in love with Mom: its characters, in their most basic states, are fundamental messes with the sole goal of improvement. That’s filtered through alcoholism in much of the show’s broadest stories, but it’s already dealt with forgiveness and grief in interesting, intricate ways that never feel like shortchanged, truncated versions of the truth. Mom relishes in tackling tragedy as the long-form event that it is, and it’s still cutting when Bonnie makes remarks about her previous relationship, or when Christy jabs Bonnie about the poor job she did raising her. Like life, it’s funny – most times, uproariously so – because it’s sad.
Cleverly, the show is also beginning to realize the killer ensemble it has on its hands, and it’s maybe at its heightened best when all five female leads are sitting at their usual cafe spot – or in an AA meeting – and ripping one another apart. Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy) is still the group’s sweet-and-sour mother hen, and although she’s still Mom‘s most ignored character, Wendy (Beth Hall) manages to rock the sad, middle-aged single woman jokes with which the writers saddle her. Last year’s brief glimpse into her bitch-mode work status as a registered nurse was welcomely perplexing, and hopefully not Mom‘s last word on the character.
Not to risk sounding like a broken record, but the entire show would be nothing without Faris and Janney. The pair just make so much sense together, tearing one another apart with time-honored zeal, and managing to make the show’s dip into serious issues tactile and guttural, not the mawkish after-school special the series could have become. They’re types, for sure – Faris the wide-eyed straight man, Janney her chaotic foil – but are played to a tee here. The best part is that four years in, Christy and Bonnie don’t feel stagnant and repetitive as characters, but understandably altered by the excuse-my-french shitstorm Mom has thrown at them over the past three years.
But it’s those dramatic high points, and the writers’ willingness to stick with an emotionally wrenching scene through to its logical conclusion, that make Mom shine in the face of its otherwise normalcy. In fact, maybe it’s because of that traditional aspect that helps the show stick out more. If the same story were unfolding over the course of a more mature, cable-friendly network, maybe Mom wouldn’t feel special anymore; it’s hard to argue that a lot of its topics feel like the I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it genre making the rounds in shows like Better Things on FX.
Mom is Mom because it’s a sitcom that doesn’t feel increasingly restrained by the CBS laugh track machine (cough The Big Bang Theory cough), but inspired by it, and the pantheon of classics that proceeded it. It has a chance to be listed among the greats not only because of a winning combo of great characters and expertly plotted swings between humor and heart, but because it’s airing in a time when multi-camera sitcoms feel static and uninspired, and hyper-modern, laugh track-less shows are increasingly pushing the former staple out of the door. Mom is the exception: it’s a contemporary, cozily familiar, modestly exceptional little show that is all the more impactful because it has the simple, intrinsically meaningful grace of its one syllable title.