The term “very special episode” has become a rather hoary cliche in sitcoms, historically timed to sweep months like February. Yet CBS’ “Mom” has demonstrated itself to be more organic than most in taking those serious turns, exploring as it does the central characters’ struggles with addiction and financial difficulties, operating in a serialized manner that regularly undertakes pretty striking shifts in tone.
The gambit, notably, hasn’t completely paid off, either in terms of ratings — with “Mom” now being tasked with anchoring the 9 p.m. hour, paired with the return of “2 Broke Girls” — or in prestige and awards, despite a fair amount of critical praise. Nevertheless, Thursday’s episode (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) offered a strong testimonial to the Chuck Lorre-produced comedy’s willingness to plunge from broad comedy directly into tragedy, swinging from a bawdy bachelorette party to the grief associated with a fatal drug overdose.
That death was all the more jarring because it involved Jodi (Emily Osment), the teen that Anna Faris’ Christy had been trying to take under her wing. The bad news came in the form of a phone call, as the assembled women — including Christy’s mom Bonnie (Allison Janney) — tried to hold themselves together for the sake of Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy) so as not to spoil her wedding day, an event already complicated, in a much more lighthearted way, by her disapproving sister-in-law-to-be, played by Rhea Perlman.
“Mom,” of course, has played the death card before, with the sudden demise last year of Alvin (Kevin Pollak), Bonnie’s boyfriend, which sent her into an emotional tailspin. Throughout its run, moreover, the show has dealt with the tenuous nature of sobriety, milking laughs from Christy and Bonnie’s situation while periodically exploring what happens when an addict falls off the wagon.
These sharp fluctuations really showcase the quality of the performances, veering from jokes about playing “pin the hose on the fireman” to fighting back tears, in an emotionally wrenching way. In that regard, having an actress of Janney’s caliber enables the writers to oscillate between silliness (as evidenced by the episode’s title, “Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride”) and the sort of drama that ripples beyond a single half-hour. Further driving the point home, CBS had already announced that the episode would come with a public-service announcement featuring U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy along with the show’s stars.
In some respects, “Mom” represents a pretty noble experiment — and like its protagonist, a survivor — as an ostensible attempt to see if multi-camera sitcoms can compete with the single-camera dramedies that have siphoned media attention, time slots and certainly most of the major awards away from them. Yet even in its third season, that still feels like a work in progress, inasmuch as the show hasn’t caught on in the way it could and probably should have, given the boost it initially received from living within “The Big Bang Theory’s” orbit.
Truth be told, it probably requires a producer with Lorre’s clout to champion such an exercise, especially on CBS, and “Mom” deserves credit both for bending the mold and standing a cut above most network comedies. Still, even with the admirable mix of laughs and lumps in the throat that this latest installment elicited, it’s not difficult to understand why the show hasn’t become as addictive as CBS would surely like it to be.