Mom, about a recovering alcoholic single mother and her mother, is the latest project from Chuck Lorre, who gave or inflicted upon the world a little show called Two and a Half Men. It's pitched at pretty much the same comic temperature — medium wacky, with a biting undertone and a willingness to go for really obvious jokes — and yet it's much less ostentatiously incorrect than Lorre's CBS cash machine. The absence of swagger makes it play as more humane.
I don't know who to credit for this — maybe Lorre and co-creators (and fellow Men vets) Eddie Gorodetsky and Gemma Baker; maybe the femme-centric cast, headed by Anna Faris as Christy, a waitress who's been sober less than 200 days, and Allison Janney as her mom, Bonnie, who's been alcohol- and drug-free for longer than Christy, if you don't count Xanax. Or maybe it's the fact that, for better or worse, this show doesn't have a Charlie Sheen, or a Charlie Sheen manqué, lording it over everyone like Eddie Haskell by way of Mephistopheles. Faris's heroine has nearly as many issues as Sheen's Charlie — except for the sex addiction, which wouldn't be a permissible trait for a single mom on a network sitcom anyway, double standards being what they are — but she's much more vulnerable because the show isn't making everybody else the butt of her jokes, and because she's not in denial, and because the show is more inclined to laugh with her than at her. Don't get me wrong: Mom laughs at Christy, too, but the laughs are ones of recognition. The show seems to take the point of view of a person of somebody who's been in recovery long enough to see through newbies' reactions and call b.s. on them, but with compassion.
Mostly, though, Mom is about shtick, and it has hired a core group of actors who know how to do it. Faris is the most talented comic actress of her generation — Jim Carrey in the body of a sixties surfer girl — and the show has the good sense to give her at least three fun things to do in every scene, usually a mix of broad and subtle humor that tickles the sitcom sweet spot. In the pilot's first scene, Christy's horribly depressed but obliged to wait tables anyhow. It's fun to watch her gloom and resentment as she carries out boringly ordinary tasks, but when she has to sing "Happy Birthday" and does it in a minor key — somewhat absently, as if in her mind she's just doing it the regular way and can't imagine anyone would find it off-putting — you realize you're in the presence of a real talent, someone you'd watch every week even if the material wasn't up to snuff.
Janney's in the same elite category. Right now, nobody does flaky-sexy-entitled better, and she's great at small gestures, such as the way Bonnie tugs at her hair while flirting with a waiter. The whole cast is just about perfect. Matt Jones, a.k.a. Badger from Breaking Bad, has a Steve Zahn goofy sweetness as Christy's ex-husband; Sadie Calvano plays Christy's sexually active teenage daughter as a person rather than a challenge, and makes a potentially sugary moment near the end play a tad more honestly; French Stewart is expectedly hilarious as the restaurant's chief cook, whose deadpan orders to kitchen staff include "Beat those egg whites gently, as if they were a small, annoying child." I don't want to oversell this show, for the same reason that I don't want to accept at face value the hopeful pronouncements of an addict who's only been sober a couple of days, but there's potential here. You can feel it.