Giving Mike and Molly a Fair Chance

Open Mind is a weekly series in which Josh Kurp takes a look at shows that we wouldn’t normally cover, to see whether they’re as bad (or occasionally, as good) as people say. This week: Mike & Molly.

In Josh Levin’s article for Slate on Alan Sepinwall, HitFix.com, and TV criticism in general, he writes, “Hypervigilant criticism, written by obsessive fans for obsessive fans, isn’t necessarily an unmitigated force for good. Is it possible that today’s TV writers are sitting too close to the screen?”

He’s wondering whether having, say, a hardcore fan of Community recapping Community (as I do for Splitsider) is really beneficial; will it be anything more than 1,000 words spent regurgitating quotes and exclaiming how amazing the show is? I like to think I don’t do that (I do praise Community, but that’s also because I honestly believe it’s the funniest thing on TV, and if there is something wrong with a show, like the recent treatment of Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family, which I also love and recap, I try to make a point of it), but there are traps that any writer who’s recapping one of their favorite shows will fall into.

Which brings us to Mike & Molly. It’s wildly popular for a freshman comedy (ranked #25 in last week’s Nielsen Ratings), thanks largely to following the even more successful Two and a Half Men on CBS’ Monday night schedule, but most comedy fans avoid it like it’s the Noid (I’m sorry, 1989). With reason, it turns out.

In last night’s episode, “First Valentine’s Day,” about Mike and Molly’s first February 14th together as a couple, there are multiple jokes made at the expense of Mike’s weight problem, and he himself solves said problems by eating an entire chocolate cake. Molly, on the other hand, finishes off over 100 pieces of candy to make herself feel better. Instead of a pint of Häagen-Dazs to soothe the soul, it’s an entire gallon. From what I’ve read about Mike & Molly, I thought the “fat” gimmick was used like the identity of Ted’s wife on How I Met Your Mother; always lingering, but not the focus. Sure didn’t seem that way with the episode I watched.

But I guess that’s part of the show’s premise: the Chicago-based Mike & Molly, created by Mark Roberts and produced by Chuck Lorre, was advertised last fall as a sitcom about two chubby people falling in love, so course there are going to be jokes at their expense (and Mike even makes passing reference to being on a diet…then later shows up at Molly’s house with cake in his ear). I can look past that. What troubles me, and why I won’t watch the show again in the future, is a joke like, “He says a visible horse anus is a boner killer.” That line is so disgusting that it somehow makes Katy Mixon (Eastbound & Down’s April), who delivers it, not only gross, but also un-sexy, something I didn’t think possible.

A sitcom is of course only as good as its jokes, which is why Mike & Molly isn’t very good; it’s just not funny. There are two penis jokes in the first minute, Mike slips and falls on ice at a half-hearted attempt at physical comedy; the term “broken-hearted bitches” is used by one character when describing his way to pick up women, Mike says Molly’s iPod is “full of chick music” and that he had to pull the earbuds out before he “got his period,” and a gay man is portrayed as someone who paints toenails “while watching Sex and the City.” Its Roseanne-like attempt at making supposedly high class things like Tiramisu seem snooty isn’t social commentary; it’s pandering. The Mike half of the show is crass and crude, while the Molly half is sweet and saccharine. I’m not sure which Mike & Molly wants to be more (but considering it’s on CBS, it’s likely Mike will win), and it shows.

I actually expected better, especially from Melissa McCarthy, who plays Molly. The actress was always a charming presence on Gilmore Girls as Lorelai’s right hand woman, Sookie. She’s also a Groundlings alumnus, the same comedy trope that helped hone the talents of Phil Hartman, Kristen Wiig, and Conan O’Brien. McCarthy has quite the pedigree, but little of her charisma shows on Mike & Molly, although I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s usually so sweet and charming that maybe I just caught her in a bad episode to showcase her talents.

Mike, played by Billy Gardell, is a nasal-sounding Ralph Kramden by way of Kevin James and Jim Belushi. But while James can occasionally provide an easy guffaw, Gardell has poor delivery (the entire show actually has an odd problem with the way its jokes are told; I counted at least three instances of someone telling a joke with no accompaniment from the laugh track), isn’t very likable, ands ends up being nothing more than a third generation sitcom boyfriend/husband slob.

In “First Valentine’s Day,” there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between its two leads, which is more than a little troubling. They’re a new couple (the show’s pilot has them meeting at an Overeaters Anonymous session and falling in love soon after) and it’s Valentine’s Day, but there’s no spark between the two. In fact, they only share two scenes together: in the first one, they’re fighting, and the other has Mike playing AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” on a boombox above his head outside of Molly’s house to apologize.

What does he have to apologize for? Mike and Carl go to Molly’s favorite bakery to surprise her with a cake. While there, Mike meets baker Kyle, who tells Mike that he was once engaged to Molly, and they even made it to the altar before calling it off. Later in the episode, after Mike confronts her, Molly mentions to her mom and sister, a.k.a. to us, that Kyle’s gay, which is why the marriage never happened. That’s really about it. There’s no B-story, which I guess is refreshing, and I do like the fact that we’re with the couple from the beginning, but I’d like to see more “show” and less “tell” from Mike on how much he cares about his girlfriend. The Say Anything gag has been done so many times that I’d actually be pissed if someone did it to me. They couldn’t think of anything more clever?

With one notable exception, the rest of the Mike & Molly characters are nothing more than mere sitcom archetypes, not actual individuals: Mike’s fellow cop and best friend, Carl (the “broken-hearted bitches” guy), who’s seems to do nothing other than razz his co-worker; Carl’s sassy advice giving grandma, Nanna; the aforementioned Katy Mixon, who’s character, Victoria, is like April, minus the intelligence and amiability; and a Senegalese waiter named Samuel who’s just as random as his description implies.

Then there’s Swoosie Kurtz, the Tony and Emmy award-winner who I most associate with Pushing Daisies (RIP). She’s a great, great character actress, the type who gets in one episode of well-known shows, like ER, Lost, Nurse Jackie, Chuck, and American Dad. It’s nice that she’s found herself a recurring role as Molly’s mother, Joyce, and she’s also the only character who seems fully fleshed out. The first time we see Joyce, she’s holding a glass of wine, and I immediately wrote on my notepad, “Uh oh.” I thought she was going to be the “bitter, slightly older woman who voices out her failures on her daughters,” a kind of comedy version of Livia from The Sopranos, but Kurtz plays Joyce as a warm, funny mother who’s happy she’s found love again, even if her love interest is the vaguely homophobic Vince, played by Tony Soprano’s gardener. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to extend this Mike-&-Molly-as-Sopranos thing any further.)

There’s no single character as reprehensible as Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, but there’s also no one as lovable as Phil from Modern Family, either. It’s middle-of-the-road comedy, good for maybe a chuckle per episode and nothing more. Even with the Gilmore Girls, Pushing Daises, and Sopranos (damn!) connections, Mike & Molly is exactly what you think it is. In other words, it’s a Chuck Lorre show.

Josh Kurp will look at $h*! My Dad Says next week.

Giving Mike and Molly a Fair Chance