Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mike & Molly: an appreciation

A friend and I like to poke fun at folks who issue hyperbolic statements about their favorite TV shows, because -- well, because we're a little mean. But you know how it is when fans post about shows they love. If a favorite character is leaving, it's "I'll never watch another episode." If the show is prematurely cancelled: "I'm boycotting the network." And heaven forbid, if a long-running show leaves of its own volition: "I no longer have a reason to own a TV." So given my aversion to over-the-top pronouncements, this is not an easy admission to make: when Mike & Molly concludes its six-season run this spring, my world will be a lot less bright.

I wouldn't have suspected that would be the case back in the fall of 2010, when Mike & Molly quietly premiered on CBS behind (a ready-to-implode) Two and a Half Men -- although I took to the characters right away. As created by Mark Roberts, the couple at the heart of the series -- schoolteacher Molly Flynn, played by Melissa McCarthy (whom I had adored from her years on Gilmore Girls) and police officer Mike Biggs, played by Billy Gardell (whose sturdy presence I remembered from Yes, Dear) -- were instantly appealing. They met at Overeaters Anonymous -- that was the "hook" -- but it wasn't "a show about overweight people," although myopic critics and rude viewers were quick to label it that way. It was simply a charming slice-of-life comedy about two characters destined, from their first date, to be together. And then, as we met the people in their lives, it developed into something a little raunchier -- because their in-laws were a cast of crazies (comprised of some of the most winning actors imaginable: Swoosie Kurtz, Katy Mixon, Rondi Reed, for starters). Roberts plotted every episode that first season, but he was still finding his way, and sometimes, it seemed like he was writing two different shows. Molly and Mike would engage in some sweet, unforced story-line -- and then, as if Roberts feared the show wasn't funny enough, he'd have the supporting characters toss off crude jokes, the kind that made for easy laughs. There was a tonal gap Roberts couldn't seem to bridge.

But all that changed in Season 2 (the episodes leading up to Mike and Molly's wedding), as Roberts and his team learned how to weave the voices into one character-based comedy, without resorting to one-liners or cheap gags. Mike & Molly Season 2 was a delight, capped by Melissa McCarthy's Emmy-reel performance late in the season in "The Dress," as Molly determined to lose the weight necessary to fit into her wedding gown. Look closely the next time you rewatch her tour-de-force performance, because it's a harbinger -- in the best sense -- of where the show was ultimately headed. Up to that point, Molly was the quiet center of the show: the grounded one, the sensible one. But as she puts her diet into overdrive, hellbent on shedding those final pounds, Molly goes a little wild -- and it reveals new facets of the character, and how much more McCarthy could do if the constraints of the role were loosened. But first we had to get through Season 3, the couple's first year of marriage, and sadly, that was a bit of a chore. If Season 1 was Mark Roberts finding his way, Season 3 seemed to be him losing it. The ongoing story-line was Mike and Molly's efforts to conceive a child; it included Molly switching to "fertility-friendly" foods, Mike switching from briefs to boxers, and ultimately, a trip to a fertility clinic -- but none of it seemed to play to the actors' strengths. After her knockout performance in "The Dress," McCarthy was relegated again to the "straight man" role, reacting to the wackos around her with a look of pained discomfort. If Molly and Mike were Roberts' "average couple," now they risked becoming too average; Roberts was holding to a vision of the show that was growing stagnant.

And then Mike & Molly was saved by a tornado. The day of its Season 3 finale, deadly tornados touched down in the midwest. The season finale was about a tornado sweeping through Chicago; CBS decided to pull the episode. But the finale was also when Molly was to give Mike the good news that she was pregnant. And the episode being postponed enabled Executive Producer Chuck Lorre and Melissa McCarthy to have a conversation: is this really where we want the show to be heading? A season of Molly pregnant? Then a season of Molly caring for a newborn? Mark Roberts left at the end of Season 3 -- I'm not going to speculate why, but by that point it was a change I applauded -- and Al Higgins, who'd been with the show since the start, was promoted to showrunner. And when the Season 3 finale finally aired, weeks later, Molly's big announcement had been quietly edited out. And Season 4 began with Molly decidedly not pregnant -- instead, quitting her staid teaching job to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

And the show charted a new course, as it featured a brasher Molly, one more in line with the character we had glimpsed in "The Dress," and one closer to the film roles that had been garnering McCarthy huge audiences and acclaim. The early episodes of Season 4 are uneven, but they're instantly funnier than anything that came before them. (I have never been one to laugh out loud at the TV screen, but I do when Mike & Molly is on -- and particularly when it's on its game.) It takes a few episodes for the writers to iron out the new format, but once they do, everything clicks. Suddenly, Molly is no longer the still point of the storm; she's more a force of nature. And playing opposite a newly unleashed Melissa McCarthy (an actress who can do more with a line than just about anyone out there), everyone else is able to up their game. Not to get bigger, mind you; the other actors -- particularly the ones with the more strident characters -- can now bring it down a notch. She's playing stronger, so they don't have to hit the laughs as hard. The show gets better balanced, and in particular, Billy Gardell is placed more into a Jackie Gleason, slow-burn role, and he fills it beautifully. (The new dynamic allows Gardell, too, to stretch in ways he never had before, revealing sides of himself -- and of Mike Biggs -- that had only been hinted at. Molly's not the only one who's set free in Season 4.) And making Molly and Mike's marriage more combustible allows Mike and his fellow police officer Carl (the sensational Reno Wilson) to relax their relationship, and what develops is a double-act bromance that stacks up to the best in TV history.

Since early in Season 4, there hasn't been a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse -- and nine times out of ten, the laughter has come in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show has dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. And occasionally the plots have managed to shock as well, as they explored the challenges of making a new marriage work. In one episode, we learn that Molly has gone back on the pill, and hasn't told Mike. In another, as her writing career takes off, she gets invited to a swank cocktail party and tries to keep Mike from attending, for fear he'll embarrass her. In the wrong hands, those episodes could have been awful: uncomfortable and unforgivable -- but the brilliant McCarthy invites your empathy and understanding. And beyond McCarthy, everyone has been served splendidly. Carl seeking out his mother, who abandoned him as a child, and trying to forge a relationship with Molly's sister Victoria; Victoria, in turn, confronting her fear of commitment; Mike's mother Peggy facing the challenges of old age and the demons of her childhood: all sensitively scripted -- and the actors have responded with glorious performances. (And as Molly's oversexed mother, Swoozie Kurtz, in episodes like "Checkpoint Joyce," has been Emmy-worthy, pure and simple.) Paradoxically, by making Molly more dominant, the writers turned Mike & Molly into more of an ensemble comedy. She was no longer the outsider looking in; she became one of them -- and they, in turn, became more rounded and appealing.

I couldn't possibly pick a "favorite" Mike & Molly -- let's just take a closer look at the one that aired last Wednesday, because it was emblematic of everything the show does right. It was about death: that topic that seemingly every sitcom takes on, and that few handle well. This one did. Molly, Victoria and Joyce's yoga instructor -- a woman barely Joyce's age -- has dropped dead during class, and the shock of it sparks discussions and decisions, all carefully rooted in character. The episode is anchored by three brief scenes between Mike and Joyce's current husband Vince (Louis Mustillo, always hilarious) -- the two characters least inclined to explore their feelings, and therefore, you'd think, least likely to ponder life's mysteries, but indeed they do: they consider the possibility of an afterlife, and ultimately vow to reincarnate, so that whoever goes first can come back and let the other know if there's a heaven. (Vince tells Mike he'll appear as "a yellow butterfly landin' on your nose.") Mike and Carl share a scene at Samuel's diner in which Mike questions the value of keeping to his diet; if a healthy yoga instructor can keel over and die, isn't death ultimately random? The scene boils down to whether Mike should eat the apple fritter he's ordered: "a deep-fried death warrant," as Carl calls it. Carl is so insistent that Mike stick to his regimen -- if not for himself, then for Molly -- that when Samuel brings them their food ("One apple fritter: served without judgment or liability," he announces, in Nyambi Nyambi's driest delivery), Mike dutifully pushes the fritter away -- inspiring Carl to gobble it down instead. (And Billy Gardell does his best double take...)

But the bulk of the episode belongs to the Flynn women. Determined to get her affairs in order, Joyce hands each of her daughters a page of color-coded stickers, so they can mark what they want when she dies. (Molly objects, "Victoria and I are not picking through your things like a couple of vultures" -- but when Victoria reaches in to sticker her mother's earrings, asking, "Are earrings one sticker or two?," Molly's quick to set the ground-rules: "Two. They should be two.") Later, Molly joins Joyce in the basement, where Joyce is trying to pry open a strongbox that's been stored away: "I was completely blindsided when your father died -- I had to plan a funeral, figure out bank accounts, bills -- all while bawling my eyes out. I don't want you girls to have to go through all that." (She presumes the box contains savings bonds and insurance papers, but as it turns out, it's just X-rated Polaroids. Joyce, admiringly: "Boy, your father sure knew how to frame a shot.") And the episode gains traction with the discovery that Joyce is planning on leaving the house to Victoria. Molly, who considers herself the "good daughter," takes it badly, leading to a marvelous drinking scene, and an even better drunk scene -- in which she informs Victoria that the reason she's getting the house is because she's a screw-up, because Joyce knows she'll need a home. But Victoria, the air-head and pothead, counters that she, in fact, is the responsible one: unlike Molly, she has no credit card debt, no outstanding bills; she has enough money put aside to buy any house in the neighborhood. It's a wonderful turnaround: a savvy side of Victoria that's rarely been explored.

So why is Joyce leaving Victoria the house? We wind up back in the basement, where Molly has dragged out Joyce's old Underwood typewriter. They recall that when Joyce worked as a stewardess for Pan Am, she used to type her daughters tales of her adventures. Molly reflects, "I think those letters are part of the reason I wanted to become a writer" -- a lovely way of drawing on one character's backstory as a way of explaining another's passions. Molly wonders, in a moment of quiet insecurity, is Joyce leaving Victoria the house because, in fact, Molly is the screw-up: the one who quit her teaching job, and has a shopping addiction, and is at that moment working off a hangover? Not at all, Joyce assures her: "I'm givin' it to her so you'll have no choice but to get the hell out." Molly is baffled: "You want me to leave?" And Joyce insists: "Of course I do -- I want you to spread your wings, see the world, live your life -- but not until mine is over. 'Cause I can't imagine this house without you." It's a touching moment that elicits a wave of "aw's" from the studio audience, but before the scene can get too soppy, Molly's clear-headed response ("That is the sweetest, most dysfunctional thing you've ever said to me") sets things right. And that's the particular genius of Mike & Molly: that fine line it walks between tough and tender. Every episode is funny and boisterous when it wants to be, and warm and moving when it needs to be -- with actors who can make those transitions seamless, who can go from raucous to reflective and back again.

There are only eight episodes left of Mike & Molly. I don't know if there's a formal "series finale" planned; I presume not, because its cancellation came as such a shock to cast and crew -- and in fact, I hope not, because even the best shows frequently screw up their series finales. But even if the ending stinks, I'll be the first to forgive it, because how do you hold a grudge against a show that's given you so much pleasure, that's brightened your spirits on the days you've needed it most? A show where the actors have convinced you, week after week, that the joy emanating from the soundstage was real: that these people loved being together as much as you loved watching them. I'm sad that Mike & Molly was canceled after only six seasons, but I'm not boycotting CBS, or selling my TV in defiance. Instead, I'm simply going to be grateful for the time spent with this amazing cast, and for writers who seemed to respect and adore the characters as much as I did.


May 2016 post-finale post-mortem. I needn't have worried; Mike & Molly went out on a perfect note. I can't imagine a more satisfying conclusion. Its final season may well have been its finest season; how often does that happen?

2 comments:

  1. I'm crying with this article.
    Just love M&M!

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    1. Fabricio, I understand: I choked up as I was writing it! I can't remember the last time I felt this sad about a show being cancelled. It's given me such pleasure over the last six years, and it's been such a steady performer for CBS, so for them to treat it so dismissively is just maddening. At least we have six years of wonderful episodes to keep watching in reruns!

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