‘Mom’ Team Reflects on Centering a Sitcom on Women in Recovery

Mom 100th Episode
Courtesy of WARNER BROS.

In 2012, Chuck Lorre was already the king of the CBS sitcom, serving as executive producer and showrunner on three Warner Bros.-produced multicams (“Two and a Half Men,” “Mike & Molly” and “The Big Bang Theory”). But then he added a fourth in “Mom,” a dark comedy he co-created with Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker. Mom” was a bit of a departure from Lorre’s recent work due to its roots in the serious subject of addiction — not exactly a topic that easily lends itself to humor. Lorre made that tonal shift clear from the pilot — likening the saga of mother-daughter duo Bonnie and Christy Plunkett (played by Allison Janney and Anna Faris, respectively) to the “second chance” story he did years before with “Grace Under Fire,” a comedy-drama hybrid influenced by the sitcoms of Norman Lear and the “All in the Family” era.

“It’s a life-and-death matter, and there’s always the [concern over] treating it with the respect that it needs to have,” Lorre says. “It’s always a gut-check as to whether or not we’re approaching the story in a way that honors the seriousness of it, but also finds the vein of comedy. Finding that takes patience. That’s been maybe the most difficult part of the process. But when you get it, it’s really, really rewarding. It feels terrific to find a little bit of light in the darkness and turn it into television.”

CBS didn’t feel the need to be patient, though — not with Lorre’s track record. After buying the pitch from Chuck Lorre Prods. and Warner Bros in December 2012, the Eye ordered “Mom” to series in May of the following year, slating the female-driven comedy for a fall launch.

Audiences didn’t have to be patient to understand “Mom’s” mission, either. The show debuted on Sept. 23, 2013, to the tune of almost 8 million live+same day viewers and held relatively steady all season, seeing an average 7.56 million live+same day viewers overall. The show also racked up awards nominations from the start, earning almost a dozen in its first year of eligibility alone (and scoring four wins — all for Janney in her tour de force as Bonnie).

The pilot initially focussed on Christy, a single mom raising two children (played by Sadie Calvano and Blake Garrett Rosenthal) while trying to maintain a somewhat newly sober lifestyle at home and work. Her teenage daughter was old enough to remember the pain and neglect from Christy’s days of drinking and drugs, but Baker and her fellow producers wanted to make it clear those demons were behind the character.

“I really thought audiences would not be able to get behind a bad mom on network TV,” Baker says. “We agreed her trouble needed to be in the rearview mirror and the children had to safe, in order for it to be funny.”

As Christy tried get her life back on track, Bonnie came quite literally knocking on her door looking for a place to stay. Although Bonnie spent many years of Christy’s childhood drinking, doing drugs and ending up in and out of jail or landing them on the streets, Christy reluctantly let her mother back in.

“When I first read the script I loved that she immediately was flawed and complicated,” Faris says of Christy. “I’ve been so fortunate as an actress, but I haven’t always played incredibly complicated characters. So it was incredibly intriguing to play a person who just did not have anything together but was clearly intelligent.”

For Faris, getting to play such emotion in what could have easily been just another multi-camera comedy filled a void, too.

“It feels terrific to find a little bit of light in the darkness and turn it into television.”
Chuck Lorre

“I couldn’t understand why this town — I’m not sure I still do — separates the idea of comedy and drama so definitively,” she says. “To me it felt like from a performance perspective, it’s about sincerity of character — that’s always been my philosophy. Getting to play those more emotional beats, it feels really good. It feels therapeutic and I really enjoy them even though they’re difficult.”

For Janney, “Mom” initially came with great appeal due to the multi-camera world, of which she had yet to be a long-term part, given her success on such dramas as “The West Wing.” When her agents called to say that Lorre had a show written that would star Faris and needed someone to play her mother, Janney says she “jumped at the chance.”

“I didn’t know where the series was going to go down the road, but I liked that it dealt with the world of addiction and recovery,” says Janney, who was the first person to audition for Bonnie. “It was a subject matter that was close to me, and I felt like I wanted to be a part of a show that talked about it — a show that would take the stigma off addiction and recovery [and] that would let people see that there is hope and laughter in recovery.”

“Mom’s” storytelling has expanded out to an ensemble that includes Beth Hall, Mimi Kennedy and Jaime Pressly.

The characters on “Mom” started attending AA meetings early in the show’s run, which offered the audience insight into their struggles as they got up to “share.” But the plots that drove the episodes forward more often than not revolved on Christy struggling to fix her life — working as a waitress in a restaurant where the chef (played by French Stewart) was an egregious drug abuser himself and dealing with becoming a grandmother when her daughter got pregnant while still in high school. The addiction element was kept more on the “periphery,” says Lorre.

“The idea of overcoming obstacles is what made the idea so powerful,” says Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth. “What began as a show specifically about substance abuse, the producers have taken to a wholly different level with episodes that address mental health and depression, cancer, heart disease, suicide, poverty and more — issues that affect us all. Chuck and his team dared to tackle these subjects, and it’s reminiscent of what Norman Lear did so brilliantly back in the 1970s with some of his shows, as he combined some of the funniest, richest, most vivid characters imaginable and dealt with some of the most difficult, tragic and sad trials that we all face.”

It wasn’t until the third season that the producers saw the potential in evolving the show to more fully embrace the “fantastic ensemble” of the women in Bonnie and Christy’s AA support group and make that more of the focal point of the show.

“We always say our best stories start with the word ‘Christy.’ The premise is Christy and fill in the blank what the challenge or problem is. That character is the epicenter of the show,” says executive producer Nick Bakay. “The season one storyline of Violet being pregnant and having her baby was just phenomenal. But as the show progressed, it just turned out to be about this group of women and their struggles to stay in recovery.”

Although Lorre calls it “very difficult” to write out the two youngest members of the family in order to refocus the series, he felt it was necessary to achieve the results they were truly after.

“Women helping women recover from the seemingly hopeless disease of alcohol and drug addiction provided this extraordinary ensemble of great actresses that were funny in different ways,” Lorre says. “In loving each other and supporting each other, they survive not as individuals — the me is overridden by the we.”

Embracing the “found” family ensemble opened up the channels to additionally complex stories as members of the group supported each other through a cancer diagnosis (for Mimi Kennedy’s character Marjorie), a rapist from Christie’s past unexpectedly resurfacing at a meeting, the death of a young newcomer to the group (guest star Emily Osment) and struggles to have a child that included a miscarriage and a short-term stint with fostering (for Jaime Pressly’s Jill).

“We don’t look for humor in difficult situations, we look for humor in the way our flawed characters handle difficult situations.”
Gemma Baker

“People often wonder how we can deal with such heavy topics on a half-hour comedy,” Baker says. “I think it’s because we don’t look for humor in difficult situations, we look for humor in the way our flawed characters handle difficult situations.”

Adding that emotion has always been an important fabric of the show. Baker says the key for the team behind “Mom” is to make sure to tell stories that would “organically come up in our character’s lives.”

The new dynamics of the show proved to work well, with the third season averaging 9.64 million viewers per episode and the fourth season almost holding steady at an average of 9.43 million per episode. Additionally, in the summer of 2016, just after the third season finished airing, Warner Bros. sold the show into syndication. In two months’ time, they were able to achieve 92% clearance for the sitcom.

“Mom” was clearly doing the work to better its stories and its platform, similar to the way the characters on “Mom” were doing the work to better themselves. The producers and stars took a further page from their characters, who Lorre notes make “a daily effort to lead better lives and to be better people” first in 2016 by shooting a PSA about the drug epidemic. Then, during the 2017 Emmy Awards nomination period they opted to make a $250,000 donation to Planned Parenthood instead of spending that money on an awards campaign. The show still received two more Emmy nominations that year: for multi-camera editing and for comedy actress for Janney.

With the show in its fifth season and about to hit the 100th episode milestone, Christy is in law school, trying her hand at a long-distance relationship (with Steven Weber’s Patrick) and still acting as a mentor to Jill, while Bonnie is managing an apartment building, in a committed relationship (with William Fichtner’s Adam) and trying to get her brother (Leonard Roberts’ Ray) to see the benefits of sober living, too.

While the show has grown over time, though, its heart and soul continues to be Faris and Janney. And that is something that will never change.

“I think audiences love characters that are authentic and human and flawed and funny — and maybe, most especially, they inspire us because we see the struggle in them that we see in ourselves,” Roth says.