Richard Cartwright/CBS Entertainment
Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell star in CBS's new comedy 'Mike & Molly,' which finds a mostly, but not entirely, humane way to look at characters you don't see on television every day.
There's a change afoot in American network comedies. They're getting sharper and a little darker, and they're relying less heavily on the setup-punchline rhythms we're all used to.
You couldn't prove it by CBS's new Mike & Molly, though.
Chuck Lorre, the man behind Mike & Molly and Two And A Half Men, has been largely untouched by anything that has changed in comedy since about 1985 — and his audience likes it that way. That's the audience at which Mike & Molly is directed.
It's a show that offers, right from its premise, some reasons to be optimistic and some reasons to be suspicious. On the one hand, it's nice to see a romantic comedy about a couple that doesn't fit the usual gorgeous-youngsters mold, both because Mike and Molly meet at Overeaters Anonymous and because they're both more like 40 than 25.
On the other hand, if you were to assign someone the task of creating a non-cringeworthy comedy about overweight people, I'm not sure Lorre and co-creator Mark Roberts — also from Two And A Half Men — would be the most promising choices.
On the other-other hand, though, it stars Melissa McCarthy (of both Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who?) and comic Billy Gardell, a pair of leads who, along with a strong supporting cast, are appealing enough to earn the show a lot of slack.
Don't get me wrong: this is a very "created by Chuck Lorre" kind of show. It is very ... sitcommy, if we can pretend briefly that such a word exists. It has a lot of dumb jokes and broad (har har) portrayals, and everyone in the writers' room should do 20 laps for the moment where two fat guys don't know enough not to wedge themselves into a stairwell (a joke worthy of Saved By The Bell) and 25 more for a busted-furniture joke.
That stuff absolutely has to stop if the show is going to improve, both because it's embarrassingly lazy and because it's less observant about weight issues than some other nice moments in the opener. See, a guy like Mike is bound to be acutely aware of himself and is highly unlikely to cavalierly lean on tables. That's not a "don't make fun" killjoy thing; that's a character thing. The cheap visuals are hard to resist, of course, but they must be resisted when they interfere with what is otherwise, surprisingly enough, a pretty human picture of these two people.
There's reason for hope, up to a point. Lorre is also one of the creators of The Big Bang Theory, which has a great big beating heart and improved a great deal over its pilot, based largely on strong performances. There's no obvious Jim Parsons-like breakout here, but McCarthy and Gardell are lovely and funny, and for the most part, they're allowed to be self-deprecating about their struggles with their weight without being pitiable or caricatured. The weight humor is less directed at them and more shared with them, and they have nice, low-key chemistry. It's a very warm vision of both of them most of the time, and that's quite rare.
Moreover, the point of a comedy — let us not forget — is to be funny, and there are things in this pilot that genuinely made me laugh! Chuckle! Chortle aloud while watching it alone! That's surprisingly rare as well. It certainly can't be said of dreck like NBC's Outsourced (which we'll discuss later this week), which thinks it has learned all those hip lessons about comedy and the end of the traditional sitcom, but has actually only acquired a feel for meanness.
Mike & Molly avoids meanness ... mostly. Throw in a supporting cast that includes Swoosie Kurtz as Molly's mom, a very funny Katy Mixon as her sister, and Reno Wilson as Mike's best bud, and for a sitcom that's not doing anything especially new, it's actually not bad. Don't expect it not to look like a sitcom, but it's not nearly as gross as it could have been.
Hear that, people putting together commercials for Mike & Molly? "Critics rave: Not nearly as gross as it could have been!"