With Mom airing its 150th episode on CBS tonight, we asked our editor-at-large Tara Ariano (who first came out as a closet Mom fan in 2017) to explain what she'd say to others who may have written the show off when they heard the words "Chuck Lorre."
When Mom first premiered in 2013, I was pretty sure it was not for me. It simply had too many strikes against it. It was a multi-cam sitcom before One Day at a Time reclaimed the format from squareness. It starred Anna Faris, by then many years removed from her razor-sharp performance in Lost In Translation. It counted among its executive producers Chuck Lorre, the impresario behind Two And a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Faris' character had a son played by a child actor who, at the time, looked like this. And it aired on CBS. As a professional critic, I did my duty and sampled the pilot, which confirmed what I feared: the characterizations were broad, too much of the story revolved around its precocious kids, and the whole thing reeked of Chuck Lorre.
A few years later, however, Mom started replacing some of my go-to shows in syndication. Owing to inertia, eventually I gave it a shot, and I was surprised and delighted by what I found. The premise of Mom's pilot is that newly-sober, single mom Christy (Faris) reconnects with her even-more-newly-sober mother Bonnie (Allison Janney). "Comedic" situations arise at the high-end restaurant where Christy works as a server, most of them involving her interactions with snooty Chef Rudy (French Stewart) and nervous Gabriel (Nate Corddry), the married manager with whom she is having an affair. At home, the jokes revolve around Christy's moronic son Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal), Christy's amiable pothead ex Baxter (Matt Jones), Christy's venomous daughter Violet (Sadie Calvano) — a high school senior who finds out at the end of the pilot that she's pregnant — and Bonnie, who eventually moves in with Christy out of a mix of economic necessity and a sincere desire to make amends for her failings during Christy's childhood. While the show's early episodes focused far too much on its one dimensional kids for me, watching as it remade itself to my preferences was a fascinating experience. Tired of Roscoe? Good news! His dad has gotten engaged to a rich lady (Sara Rue's Candace) and Roscoe's going to go live with them! Exhausted by Violet's hurtfulness? She's off to deal blackjack in a neighboring state!
In place of all the baloney with Christy's kids, producers filled the show with storylines about the topic that had always been the most compelling aspect of Mom's premise: what it's like to be in recovery. More compelling still: increasing the number of scenes set at Christy and Bonnie's women-only Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where we get to spend time with Christy's sponsor Marjorie (Mimi Kennedy), fellow addict/nurse Wendy (Beth Hall), and Season 2 arrival Jill (Jaime Pressly), a newly divorced and unimaginably wealthy woman. Over the years, the show's episodes have explored a variety of issues related to addiction recovery: what it actually means to make amends; whether it's possible to depart AA and become an untroubled social drinker; what responsibility an addict in recovery has to someone who may refuse help; the issues that can arise in a romantic relationship between a healthy substance user and a recovering addict; Christy's hard-fought acceptance that she also has an addiction to gambling. And through Mom's nearly seven seasons, there are multiple episodes where it's singularly focused on its women characters. The show could definitely be a lot less white and straight, but it doesn't get nearly enough credit for having the most female series regulars, probably the oldest series regulars, and the most physically diverse series regulars (read: larger than size 4 and yet, somehow, their weight is never a plot point!) since Orange Is The New Black.
If you wrote Mom off early on, but have been convinced by my gushing that it's worth a look, let me make it easy for you: here are five episodes you can stream on Hulu (Seasons 2-6) and CBS All Access (Season 7) to see what makes Mom so special.
Season 2 - Episodes 18-20: "Dropped Soap and a Big Guy on a Throne" / "Mashed Potatoes and a Little Nitrous" / "Sick Popes and a Red Ferrari"
Some might say I shouldn't start this list of "five" episodes with a three-parter, but indulge me. After slipping in the shower, Bonnie throws her back out and is prescribed painkillers, which Marjorie assures her she may take as directed without breaking her sobriety. At first, Bonnie carefully adheres to the schedule delineated on her pill bottle, but the temptation is too great and the process of her falling off the wagon arcs over the following two episodes. By the time I dipped back into the show, Janney had been Emmy-nominated four times for her performance (winning twice), and I have to believe the elastic-limbed sequence in which Bonnie tries to "accidentally" re-injure her back in order to justify staying on her pills was a major contributor.
Season 3 - Episode 16: "Cornflakes and the Hair of Three Men"
Bonnie is at home doing dishes when she gets a wrong number call on her cell phone. The caller tries again, gets her again, and a vocal flirtation is born: for several days, Bonnie and Adam (William Fichtner) chat non-stop, watch TV together, and collaborate on meal prep in their separate locations, until eventually they must decide whether they're brave enough to try meeting in person. It's easy to imagine Janney and Fichtner creating romantic chemistry under any circumstances, but the top notch writing makes their banter an easy sell and a pleasure to watch.
Season 5 - Episode 18: "Spaghetti Sauce and a Dumpster Fire"
Marjorie's having a tough time in Season 5: her husband Victor (Jonny Coyne) has had a debilitating stroke, requiring her to become his primary caretaker; and her AA sponsor breaks her sobriety, leaving Marjorie — herself a sponsor to a number of women — without her own support. Still, Christy is alarmed to find Marjorie angrily confronting the supermarket deli clerk who tried to skip her number, and so dismayed when Marjorie rebuffs her attempts to talk about the incident that she decides, close to five years into their work together, to find a new sponsor. It's an interesting look both at the nature of the sponsor/sponsee relationship, and at the justifiable rage a woman in her sixties might feel at the routine interactions in her daily life that make her feel invisible.
Season 6 - Episode 8: "Jell-O Shots and the Truth about Santa"
A chance conversation with one of her law school classmates leads Christy to check out a podcast called The Mother of All Problems, in which a young woman tells hellish stories about all the ways her mom ruined her life. What said classmate could not know is that the young woman is Violet (who at this point hadn't appeared in an episode in two full years). After compulsively listening to and bitching about Violet's one-sided portrayal of events, Christy takes Bonnie's advice to get in touch with Violet and have it out — which she does, on mic. Though I feel I've been very clear in affirming Mom producers' choice to write both Christy's children out of the show (and it's actually hilarious how someone who only started watching in 2019 might not even realize that the series title technically applies to both its leads), this is a clever way of reintroducing one of them.
Season 7 - Episode 11: "One Tiny Incision and a Coffin Dress"
One of the best recent additions to Mom has been Tammy (Kristen Johnston), who Bonnie met when both were foster children placed in the same home as teens, and who meet again as adults when the women bring their meeting to a prison where Tammy is incarcerated. Following Tammy's release, she joins the AA crew, becomes Marjorie's roommate, and gets a job at Adam's bar, enthusiastic about discovering all the wonders of life on the outside that she has missed, and exhibiting fierce loyalty to her chosen family since it's the only family she's got. Or so she thinks, until her aunt Cookie (guest star Kathleen Turner) tracks her down... because she needs a kidney. Turner and Johnston as aunt and niece is the pairing you never knew you needed until you see it, and Johnston's work as she learns more about Cookie's estrangement from her sister, Tammy's mother, will break your heart.
Mom airs its 150th episode tonight at 9:00 PM ET on CBS
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.