Rants and Raves
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Rants and Raves

Not Your Typical “Mom”

How an under-the-radar series evolved from a typical network sitcom into one of the boldest and most nuanced depictions of addiction and recovery in television history.

The cast of “Mom” at PaleyFest 2018 (from left to right: Jamie Pressly, Anna Faris, Allison Janney, Mimi Kennedy, and Beth Hall)

Like all people, my personal life has been affected by drug and alcohol abuse. I have beloved family members who have engaged in lifelong battles with it and friends that have come precipitously close to the edge of disaster. But I have a less common vantage point through my work as a clinical psychologist.

In my two years of training at the VA Medical Center, I worked with Veterans struggling with substances every day. In the pain management clinic, I worked with Veterans who became addicted to prescription opiates after years of struggling with chronic pain from service-related injuries. In the women’s clinic, I worked with female Veterans who abused alcohol to numb the pain associated with sexual trauma. In the HIV clinic, I worked with gay male Veterans who used crystal meth as an antidote to the shame of the identities they were forced to hide during their service. The paths to addiction and the drugs of choice frequently differed, but the resulting destruction was remarkably similar.

Countless films and television series have touched on addiction with differing success. Two of the best films that come to mind are Traffic and Requiem for a Dream, both of which use ensemble casts and intersecting plot lines to examine multiple aspects of the impact of addiction. Other highlights are harrowing character studies like Trainspotting, Thirteen, The Basketball Diaries, Flight, and Leaving Las Vegas. Portraits of addiction are common on the small screen as well. The pilot of Murphy Brown featured the main character returning from a stint at the Betty Ford Center. Don Draper’s alcoholism was a constant presence from start to finish on Mad Men. And recent streaming and premium cable hits like Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie, and Shameless delve deeply into the subject matter. But arguably no long-running series has ever put addiction and recovery front and center on an ongoing basis until Mom.

Promotional image for “Mom” (Copyright CBS)

The Evolution of “Mom”

Mom did not start out with addiction and recovery front and center. When it premiered on CBS in the fall of 2013, it was marketed as a family comedy from super producer Chuck Lorre (Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory). The first season centered on Christy Plunkett (House Bunny and Scary Movie comedienne Anna Faris), a 35-year-old waitress at an upscale restaurant in Napa, California juggling her children Violet (Sadie Calvano) and Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal), her pot-smoking ex-husband Baxter (Matt L. Jones), her affair with her married boss Gabriel (Nate Corddry), and the return of her estranged mother Bonnie (7-time Emmy winner and reigning Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Allison Janney). The fact that Christy and Bonnie were drug addicts in early recovery was mentioned frequently but not necessarily central, as most of the first season focused on Christy’s dating life, Violet’s unplanned pregnancy, and Bonnie’s ire at Christy’s desire to get to know her biological father.

Fast forward to its current season (its fifth) and things look very different. The show focuses equally on Christy and Bonnie and the supporting cast is comprised almost entirely of their female support network with whom they work the Alcoholics Anonymous program. These women are Marjorie (Dharma & Greg’s Mimi Kennedy), a woman with decades of sobriety who serves as a sponsor to many; Jill, a divorced socialite who is forced to confront harsh new realities as she struggles to maintain her sobriety; and Wendy (Beth Hall), a meek nurse who finally comes into her own when she gets clean. The plot arcs this season have focused on the relapse of Jill and Bonnie’s half-brother Ray (Leonard Roberts), the transfer of addictions from substances to junk food and caffeine, the futile search for quick fixes and miracle cures for the disease of addiction, and how the codependency fostered by their particular twelve-step program threatens the survival of Bonnie and Christy’s new romantic relationships, with a paraplegic former stunt man (Prison Break’s William Fichtner) and his estranged brother (Wings’ Stephen Weber).

The shift in the show occurred fairly gradually over the second and third seasons, as everyone except Christy and Bonnie exited the show. Christy’s daughter Violet turned 18 and went off to make her own destructive decisions. Her son Baxter went to live with her ex-husband who had now cleaned up his act by marrying an affluent, uptight woman (Less Than Perfect’s Sarah Rue). Christy ended her affair with her boss and the restaurant changed management. With these changes, the parenting child-rearing element and the workplace antics were all but eliminated and the focus shifted to addiction and recovery.

What makes Mom unique isn’t merely that it’s a multi-camera network sitcom with female addicts front and center — although that in and of itself is quite an anomaly. What truly makes it worthy of greater attention and acclaim than it has received is how accurately it does it. Over the course of the five seasons, Bonnie and Jill relapsed and retained sobriety. Two key recurring characters abandoned recovery for good and returned to risky behaviors; Regina (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) because she felt God was all she needed and Ray because he was just too deeply in denial about his affliction. Christy became a sponsor for the first time and had to cope with her sponsee returning to drug use and fatally overdosing. Christy became reunited with her biological father only to have him die of a heart attack. We learned about the rape that sent Christy spiraling into drug use and the childhood abandonment that turned Bonnie into an ice-cold monster. (In fact, the season three premiere in which we meet Bonnie’s mother, played by Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, is a series highlight). Marjorie has struggled to reconnect with her estranged son, had her faith shaken by the relapse of her own sponsor, and had her life upended by her new husband’s massive stroke. Christy and Bonnie even became homeless for a time.

But the transition to bolder subject matter hasn’t robbed the show of its light. It remains genuinely funny and has celebrated profound growth in its characters. These women have made amends, put their lives back on track, and found love. Perhaps most importantly, they have found each other and given each other the supportive family system they were all lacking. The juxtaposition of tragedy and humor may seem jarring, but it is the only way the show can be authentic. This is how recovery works. It’s a messy, nonlinear process filled with enormous triumphs and tragic setbacks.

Mom’s willingness to tackle dark subject matter alone doesn’t necessarily set it apart in sitcom history. Shows like All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H, The Golden Girls, Family Ties, Roseanne, and others have been interrupting the laugh track for socially important drama for nearly a half century. But this trend has faded in recent years, as series have gravitated toward one of three categories — the half hour sitcom that is 100% comedy, the hourlong drama that is 100% serious, and the occasional “dramedy,” which is more often than not just an hourlong drama that has elements of humor. The half hour sitcom that frequently depicts tragedy is an anomaly in the current landscape.

Although it has never garnered the media attention of co-creator Chuck Lorre’s other recent CBS hits like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, it has nevertheless become a steady performer for the network. It holds its own in the ratings in a tough time slot (Thursdays at 9pm) where it airs opposite the Will & Grace revival and ABC’s buzzy block of Shonda Rhimes dramas. It has also won some awards, although these are entirely confined to Janney’s performance. The esteemed actress won two of her seven Emmys in the category of Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for the show and has since been promoted to the category of Outstanding Lead Actress. Janney is undeniably brilliant. It’s hard to believe that this is her first time doing a multi-camera comedy. Although, after seven seasons on The West Wing, several stints on Broadway, and a slew of feature films, it would be foolish to assume there is any medium she can’t excel at. But the attention heaped on Janney, however deserved, distracts from the fact that this truly is an ensemble show. Anna Faris turns in a truly impressive performance in each and every episode, while Mimi Kennedy and Jamie Pressly have done award-worthy work of their own. (And I have no doubt Beth Hall could as well if they gave her some meatier material.) Then there’s the writing. Although the jokes don’t always exactly hit the bullseye and some episodes — particularly those about the main characters’ love life — can be a tad run-of-the-mill, the remarkably skillful balance of the comic and tragic is something truly special and worthy of admiration. In my opinion, the combination of the pitch perfect acting and brave writing makes it one of the best and most important comedies currently on television.

My Afternoon with “Mom”

Allison Janney uses Anna Faris’s back to sign an autograph at PaleyFest 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in the presence of the cast and co-creator of Mom at PaleyFest, the Paley Center for Media’s annual festival that fetes various television series. After screening an upcoming episode, the five primary cast members and co-creator came out for a Q&A that lasted over an hour. There were two primary topics of discussion. One, which I have covered at length here, is how the show evolved to focus on addiction and recovery. The other, which I barely touched on here, is how unique it is that the show is a woman-dominated affair. The beautiful sisterhood that exists among the ensemble was evident throughout and they shared a variety of moving and humorous anecdotes covering topics like their own struggles with anxiety, the struggle to break into Hollywood, what it’s like to be an aging actress in Hollywood, and the impact of one of their own having astronomical success (Janney’s recent Oscar win came in the midst of filming this season).

The talented and charming Anna Faris graciously joined me for a grainy selfie.

I had the chance to ask a question of the panel. After remarking on how important I found the series to be particularly as a mental health professional, I asked them if they received pushback from the network about moving their show into darker territory. Co-creator Gemma Baker stated emphatically that they received nothing but support from all involved. It certainly didn’t hurt that co-creator Chuck Lorre, one of the most successful and influential men in the entertainment industry, is in recovery himself. When the panel ended, the cast graciously took selfies, signed autographs, and had meaningful conversations with the fans. I got to take selfies with Anna Faris and Beth Hall, chat with Mimi Kennedy, and although I didn’t get to interact with Allison Janney, I had the pleasure of being a few feet away as she immersed herself in the crowd, taking selfies and cracking jokes.

It was clear at the panel that the show didn’t start off trying to be the voice of women in recovery. Nevertheless, a few dozen episodes in they realized that that’s what their show was destined to be and they embraced it wholeheartedly. Through a steadily evolving process of eliminating what doesn’t work and elaborating upon what is working. In that way, the evolution of Mom is kind of like recovery itself. But without the major setbacks. Mom has continued to grow and shine since it’s premiere nearly 5 years ago.

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Richard Reflects on Hollywood

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Richard

Richard

Passionate cinephile. Music lover. Classic TV junkie. Awards season blogger. History buff. Avid traveler. Mental health and social justice advocate.

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