Tuesday, December 18, 2018

WHY "MOM" SHOULD BE CONSIDERED AMONG TV'S BEST SHOWS: How a good show managed to shift it's focus and managed to get better.

“Mom” is one of the best shows on television, and it has been for awhile now.

I'm starting off with that declaration 'cause for as much praise as the show gets, you don't hear about the series talked about in those terms and that's not right. It's one of the biggest hits in syndication right now, it's regularly aired on like nine cable channels and currently occupies the 9:00pm slot on CBS's Thursday night lineup which is pretty easily the biggest lineup on TV at the moment, even with the amazing “Murphy Brown” reboot ending it's purported one-year limited run this week. It gets overlooked 'cause it's on after two unfairly maligned series, “The Big Bang Theory” in it's final year and it's underrated spinoff “Young Sheldon” which I happy to see get some love from the Broadcast Film Critics this week, surprisingly. I usually tend to be quite critical of television critics and still am I might add, but that was nice to see.

However, I want to talk other aspects of the series, 'cause “Mom” is a great show, but it's also had a fairly odd run as well. For one thing, it's proof once again that we should just stop underestimating Chuck Lorre's genius at this point. It's been years since the whole “Two and a Half Men' fiasco and I still think that show lasted way too long and stopped being funny years earlier, but he's still got a strangehold on the television landscape; even getting success on streaming now. “Mom” in particular though, has had a strange shelf-life, although it's not entirely unique material for Lorre. Lorre's been open about much of his alcohol and drug problems in the past and he's certainly created shows about every aspect of it. It's not even the first show he's done that's about women raising a family after using AA to help recover. It wasn't a focus of the series, but it was brought up regularly on “Grace Under Fire” how Brett Butler's character went to AA regularly and how her ex-husband among other friends and relatives were recovering and/or struggling addicts.

It wasn't the focus of “Mom” either,- well, not entirely the original focus. See, I was both late, and early on this series. I had watched the first few episodes when they originally aired and thought it was a good show and an interesting premise, and it had a lot of actors I generally liked in it, but I also stopped watching it regularly. I didn't think it was great originally and decided to forgot it existed except for Emmy season when they'd honor Allison Janney again and again, because, well, she's Allison Janney. Just trust me on this, every award she wins is deserved; I'm honestly surprised she doesn't win more things more often than she does. However, my mother discovered the show at some point and liked it and started watching the series in reruns, but she had a different idea about the series. For one thing, she thought the “Mom” in the title, was Allison Janney's Bonnie character, and I thought it was, partly her, but was more Anna Faris's Christie character instead. It wasn't until the show started streaming on Hulu and I showed my mother the series from the beginning did she see the show I thought she was watching, a sitcom about a struggling single mother of two kids fight struggle to get through the day working a lousy job at a restaurant while dealing with both her own personal demons that she struggles with regularly, including her even more outrageous and self-centered recovering addict mother.

Somehow that dynamic, in it's six seasons so far, completely changed by the time she started watching. For one thing, both the kids had left the series as regulars and the show shifted that focus to Bonnie and  Christie and more to the AA side, and how the series became about a group of recovering addicts becoming friends and helping each other through their issues.

That is- well, first of all, it makes the title of the series make no goddamn sense. I mean, yes, now the focus is on Bonnie,- that's another change, the Lead and Supporting Moms switched placed practically which,- eh, could be a touchy transition in other circumstances and has in the past on other shows, but, what do you expect when you cast Allison Janney; that kind of thing just happens naturally anyway. Still though, the show went from a double-meaning of “Mom” to barely having a singular meaning, and it's-, it's just a terrible name for this show at this point. I'm honestly surprised they haven't tried changing it at this point. I know that's been a hassle and there isn't a great record of success with that, but it's not entirely unprecedented and still it should practically be called “Group” now or something like that. I don't know, just something less generic than “Mom”.

Still though, even though it's not too uncommon for series to shift and change from their original incarnation as they grow and evolve, this is an unusually big shift of focus. A very good one, one that's helped make a good show become a great one, but one of the bigger changes a series has had that I can remember. Literally, from episode one to now there's only two regular characters who remain as regulars, and this wasn't a two-character show. The only other successful series I can think of that changed that drastically and that quickly was “Night Court”, and much of that was out of necessity. Multiple cast members dying, casting changes that evolved, castings that were actually put off until the actor was available, a major EP shift. I'm sure a lot of that happened on “Mom” too, but “Night Court” still pretty much a workplace sitcom that took place at night in a courtroom. “Happy Days” was still mostly about the 1950s nostalgia life for a family after it switched from single-camera to three camera and shifted focus more of a focus to Fonzie, even “Valerie” basically just remained a family sitcom that focused on the kids after Valerie Harper got fired, and it remains forgettable and mediocre it's entire run.

So, I guess the thing that's fascinating to me is, how the hell did “Mom” manage to pull this off? Not only a bunch of characters and actor subtractions and addition but also a giant shift in the series' focus? Well, they did a few things right, but the first thing they did from the beginning is keep the show realistic from the beginning. I know, there's somewhat of a notion nowadays that part of why the traditional three-camera sitcom is out of vogue outside of CBS and a few other places is because they seem less believable; I know where some people get this notion, 'cause multi-cams at their worst can be artificial, but often the most realistic and down-to-Earth sitcoms are multicams and “Mom” is no exception. Lorre worked on “Roseanne”, the guy knows how to create a financially-struggling family led by a single mother who's barely employable and he does it well here. The characters have changed houses and locations over the series, they've had to scheme and finagle to get and keep work. Earlier parts of the series focused on that by showing more of Christie's job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, where she was having an affair with the maitre d' played by Nate Corddrey and we had French Stewart as an eccentric chef. Both those characters are basically non-existant in the show now, but they're not completely gone from the narrative. Christie worked at the restaurant long after that contrast was a relevant part of her life and a major part of the series and had focused her attention on law school.

She also could only focus her attention on law school after her kids move out. The older teenager getting married and giving up her own child for adoption, which in hindsight is very reminiscent of “Grace Under Fire”, which also includes a similar narrative. The younger kid, well, she gives up her parental rights to him after his father gets married. His father, also originated as a regular character in the beginning of the series, and a stoner burnout who eventually evolved into getting a job and getting married and Christie, eventually realizing that it would be better off for her son if his father and his wife would take care of him.

This is heavy shit really. She's essentially a failed mother on two counts who's living with a failed mother on one count, and that's never going away from the show, it's written into the series and the characters. When you have flawed characters to begin with, you have more leniency to have them make a lot of mistakes and have their life influenced by it. This series started basically as a more pathetic version of “One Day At a Time” and turned into a more solemn version of “The Golden Girls”, and remained as funny as both those shows. And another smart thing was how the show didn't try to make us forget or erase what came beforehand. There's no Chuck Cunningham that walked up the stairs and suddenly Richie only has one sibling. There's real characters, actions and consequences, and they seem to keep coming back throughout the series. All the new characters, other women in their support group, and Bonnie's fiance Adam first showed up and seemed like superfluous new characters that just evolved into becoming a part of the series. It balances a lot for a multi-cam, but it seems to be able to pull it off fairly well.

It's interesting how the series managed to go from a main household and conflict of one family and then became a multiple narrative where several different characters with varying lives and socioeconomic backgrounds and have them seem natural being together as friends close enough to be family. It's actually really interesting.

If I know anybody, well, with a 100% certainty, in Alcoholics Anonymous or NA or GA or any other similar organization, they have never brought it up to me and personally I have never asked and if I did, I don't think they divulge any of that information to me; I don't do any drugs and I can't even remember the last time I had a drink, I do occasionally gamble but even then I don't remember the last time I did that for real money. But, I have to imagine that based on what I do know, which admittedly isn't too much, but I have to believe that friendship groups like these must form in Anonymous meetings like these. I have no idea about the success rate of AA, and “Mom” doesn't completely pretend that it's a perfect system that works for everybody; it barely works for these characters and it often doesn't, but if this is just a creation from Chuck Lorre and Company that these addicts would get together and become friends like these in and out of meetings and constantly helping out, then it's at least a really comfortable thought. A bit troubling admittedly, but comfortable nonetheless. “Mom” provides a positive look at a bunch of addicts, and the makeshift family they can form through AA. I have no idea if this occurs, but it's a nice thought. That said, Chuck Lorre has been upfront about his past addictions several times, including alcoholism and it's seeped into many of his shows, and if he wasn't, it's not like it's an uncommon condition or something new to television. Hell, “Murphy Brown”'s show originally started with the character coming out of rehab, and there's plenty of examples before and after her, but most depictions I think of regarding AA involve characters, well, not mentioning their suffering much or their participation in the group.

We tend to associate alcoholism and AA in particular as a very privately dealt-with disease. I can think of several stories in art and real life where alcoholics are informed of an AA meetings in places they know very well but didn't realize meetings took place there or were populated by people they knew and didn't realize they were in AA. Roger Ebert wrote a famous one about not knowing AA meetings happened in literally down the hall from his office at the Chicago Sun Times. The thing is, AA is an organization that literally counts the days when it's members have last had a drink or have otherwise slipped, and their members sponsor each other and help keep each others' sobriety in check and do what they can to help them get back to sobriety when they do fall off the wagon, or help keep each other out of or help them get out of situations where they may be tempted. It actually makes quite a bit of sense that a makeshift friends groups would form out of this. It also makes sense that people are so addicted like the characters in “Mom” seem to be that they might need their AA friends and sponsors as close by as possible. Their world revolves around staying sober, that's not an easy thing to just push yourself through privately and without the help of others. It's possible sure, might even be preferable to some but, I think most people who seek out groups like AA are looking for others to help them, or to see if others are out there who can.

I have no idea how insightful or not that observation is, in real life, but I think it makes perfect sense as to why “Mom” was able to pull off this drastic shift in the series, and why and how it manages to continually get better over time. It also helps that it showed this transition, most of the shows about a group of random ragtag group of characters coming together don't really do that. Usually they start off after they went through that painful transition into a new condition.

Take the quintessential example of this, “Friends”. Okay, it's not about alcoholics or addicts, but it's about young 20somethings as they transition painfully into independent adults. The only thing is that for most of the characters, we didn't see that painful transition. When we start “Friends”, Joey has transitioned into a struggling hustling young actor enough to get enough regular work to survive in New York, Ross has gotten over a painful divorce and gotten a doctorate at college and is now an entry-level scientist, Monica's has second-child syndrome to get over which led to her having OCD and weight problems but she had transitioned that into entry-level chef/cook career, Chandler went through college as well as being a child of a painful divorce to get an entry-level accounting job, and Phoebe went from living on the streets after her single parent's suicide and hustling to having a freelance masseuse job between other jobs. Only Rachel, walks into the show immediately after having run off from her wedding, is actually beginning a transition into a new normal condition, everybody else is already there. "Mom" decide to begin before the creation of it.

Maybe it's just a naturla evolution of the series, maybe Lorre knew the good parts when he saw it and just went there, maybe it was on purpose to begin with; I doubt the last one, but that makes it pretty unique all things considered. They say that drama means change, but sometimes it can mean comedy too, and it definitely does here. 

And yet, I think to a lot of people, the show is still mostly just, that series Allison Janney happens to be on. Hmm. Think about it, it's one of the darkest, edgiest and funniest comedies from one of television's best creators and producers and it's mostly a footnote in today's television landscape. I mean, it's popular, and mostly has had good ratings, it's a Top 20 hit now, and has been a top rated sitcom forever, but it's-, yeah, this show's six years in, changed itself multiple times over and just hitting it's stride, stands out as unique today and from it's predecessors.... It's not right, this show's way too good to be an also ran. 

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