By Alan Hurst
After 170 episodes and eight seasons, the CBS situation comedy Mom ended its run last month and, ironically for show where addiction was a central theme, I’m already feeling the pangs of withdrawal.
One of the wonders of the show for me was its ability to find the right balance in delivering a consistently funny, character driven comedy that managed the very delicate dance of presenting the challenges of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction in a realistic, thoughtful way. I think one of the key ways the series achieved this was rooted in the desire of the creative talent behind the camera and the actors in front of it to show these characters moving forward, maybe not always in a straight line, but at least in the right direction. Of course some of them did relapse – the series wouldn’t have had the impact it did if the recovery process was trivialized – but each time they moved a character off their individual path to sobriety – however briefly – it made the character and the series stronger.
The trajectory of the show from season one to season eight is fascinating to watch. When it premiered, the character of Christy, played by Anna Farris, was front and centre as newly sober single mom of two kids by two different dads. She worked as a waitress, rented a rundown home and was just trying to keep things together when her mom – also a recovering alcoholic and addict – comes back into her life. As played by Allison Janney, the character of Bonnie was clearly the richer comedic role, the boldly confident loose cannon who doesn’t really know how to be a mom to her daughter but is looking to give it a try. With an assortment of traditional sitcom characters – Christie’s quirky restaurant colleagues, the well cast kids, a pothead ex-husband – the format seemed set.
But then something started to happen, and the focus shifted. With the addition of actresses to portray fellow members of the AA group the characters attended, the chemistry of the cast and the rich story possibilities suddenly blossomed. They became a group of women from varied backgrounds but connected by their support of each other and their desire to stay sober.
Christie’s children Violet and Roscoe – well played by Sadie Calvano and Blake Garret Rosenthal – were integral to the first few seasons but were relegated to the background as the characters of Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy), Jill (Jamie Pressly) and Wendy (Beth Hall) gained prominence. And Janney’s character of Bonnie – after two supporting actress Emmy wins in 2014 and 2015 – morphed into a co-lead with Farris’ Christie. By the time of Farris’ sudden departure at the end of season seven, the show had become a true ensemble piece, with episodes focusing on each of the women, including the welcome and energizing addition of Kristen Johnston’s Tammy in season five (that character deserved her own spin-off!).
The only male actor in the cast who lasted for the bulk of the run was William Fichtner, who joined the cast in season three as Adam, a boyfriend and eventual husband for Bonnie. Fichtner’s Adam was the perfect sparring partner for Janney and really helped the writers and the actress show the character’s positive evolution each season.
A hallmark of the show was the strong calibre of guest stars that started in season one and popped up in each subsequent season, sometimes for just one episode or with an arc of five or six depending on the story the writers wanted to tell. Linda Lavin, Ellen Burstyn, Octavia Spencer, Patti LuPone, Kristen Chenoweth, Beverly D’Angelo, Kathleen Turner, Rosie O’Donnell, Tyne Daly, Steven Weber, Harry Hamlin, Edward Asner and Chris Pratt (Farris’ husband at the time) were just a few of the names enticed to play in the Mom sandbox.
For the last few years the series has been in heavy rotation on many TV channels. As soon as the Mom producers felt they had enough episodes in the can to make syndication lucrative, it was everywhere. At our home we’ve seen each episode more than a few times, but in our defense there hasn’t been a network series in ages that has been able to make us consistently laugh the way Mom does. Each decade seems to have one sitcom that stands the test of time – in the 1950’s it was I Love Lucy, the 1960’s had The Dick Van Dyke Show, the 1970’s had The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the 1980’s had Cheers, the 1990’s had Seinfeld (although I was never a fan), and the 2000’s had Everybody Loves Raymond. Mom seemed to rule the 2010’s and I’m thinking it will also stand the test of time.
For me the show’s biggest impact will be the way the addiction struggles of all the characters were recognizable, honest, funny and moving in the hands of a deft cast, backed up by strong, witty writing. If you were a Mom fan you became invested in these characters. During the last 15 months, after spending so much time at home, that became even more true and often the show functioned as a virtual therapy session. Funny, but warmly therapeutic.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.