When “Mom” premiered in 2013, the mother-daughter duo of Christy and Bonnie Plunkett had been estranged for years after Bonnie (Allison Janney) had neglected her daughter throughout her childhood — lost for many years to her addiction — which was then a cycle Christy (Anna Faris) repeated. Tension, especially for a sitcom, was high from the start, with both characters being “extremely flawed,” says co-creator and executive producer Gemma Baker.
“I think people assume we started ‘Mom’ with a desire to do a show about a mother-and-daughter relationship, but our starting place, as I remember it, was actually the word ‘redemption,’” Baker says. “We loved the idea that you would be able to watch characters completely turn their lives around over the course of the series. The whole point of ‘Mom’ was to make a show that would give people hope.”
In order to be successful in such a grand endeavor, the series in many ways was going to live or die by its casting.
Faris had been in the comedy world since she helped the Wayans brothers launch the “Scary Movie” franchise in 2000, but her resume read much heavier in film titles than television ones. In 2004 she had a recurring guest-star arc on the final season of Warner Bros. mega-hit “Friends” and then she went on to play a version of herself in HBO’s Hollywood-set bro-comedy “Entourage.” But it wasn’t until she booked “Mom” in 2013 that she nabbed her first starring television comedy role.
“There’s something about Anna as a human being that makes you care and root for her. You want her to succeed in life,” says co-creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre. “She’s a very skilled actress and she can do comedy and she can do the dramatic moments and she can do slapstick and the whole range of acting. But beyond that, just [as a] person [she] is very empathetic.”
Faris was the first person cast when CBS ordered the pilot into production for the 2013-14 television season. She booked the role of Christy Plunkett at the end of January, and with one of two major roles down, producers then turned to finding someone who would balance — and also have natural chemistry with — Faris for the role of her mother.
Janney certainly wasn’t a stranger to comedy in 2013 — she had appeared in such roles in films including “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” as well as in guest-star spots on sitcoms including “Frasier.” But she was certainly better known for her dramatic turns — namely her Emmy-winning performance as CJ Cregg in “The West Wing” — when she booked the role of Bonnie later that same January.
“Allison Janney is one of our great actresses, for whatever the requirement might be — she’s the master of the craft,” Lorre says. “She connected with Anna on a very deep level that created a team, that created a unit. They became a comedic team and when the comedy was put aside and the moments were being played just for what they were, it was something special and you could feel it when you were watching.”
Faris and Janney may not necessarily resemble each other physically, but the relationship they have developed certainly defines family.
“I’ve always been in awe of her,” Faris says of Janney. “From the first season, we always had this kindred spirit element about us. We would hang out after work all the time, we’d get to work early to just decompress or go over lines. We’re incredibly close, and I learn from her. Whenever we have a scene that’s just the two of us, it feels like this incredible dance partnership because we can anticipate each other’s moves. I’m so lucky and fortunate, and I couldn’t love her more. I don’t know what I would do without her.”
“We loved the idea that you would be able to watch characters completely turn their lives around over the course of the series. The whole point of ‘Mom’ was to make a show that would give people hope.”
Janney says that everyone already knew Faris was “hysterically funny,” but now they have learned she is gifted dramatically as well.
“From the beginning she has made such brave emotional choices, and over time I think she has really begun to trust herself in that area and take more risks,” Janney says. “Working with her this closely and this long has been one of the best parts of doing this show.”
At times, some of the humor on “Mom” comes from the women taking jabs at each other and their checkered history, but they also provide many more tender, serious and heartwarming moments, too. It is this balance that has become the quintessential tone for the show.
“I have always felt that one of the reasons that the show works is because of how much Anna and Allison love each other in real life,” Baker says. “That love and respect comes through even when Christy and Bonnie are fighting, and it’s what makes those scenes enjoyable to watch.”