You’d never guess it from the yuk-a-minute CBS promos, but Mom, the Anna Faris/Allison Janney sitcom that begins its second season Monday, is a show about alcoholism. No, it’s not about characters who drink constantly and hilariously (that would be Cougar Town). On Mom, single mother Christy Plunkett and her mother Bonnie never touch the stuff. But each week, everything they do is framed against the background of their drunken pasts, and their weary, grudging attempts to make the future better. Mom is a sitcom about recovery.
Of all the cultural turns that comedy has made since the advent of television - away from offering up racist stereotypes for laughs, for example - the change in the depiction of alcoholism may be the most fragile. Drunks have been comedy gold from time immemorial. (They lose control of themselves and can’t form coherent sentences, even though they’re trying really hard - it’s hilarious!) Town drunks, like The Andy Griffith Show’sOtis, became stock characters on television comedies, just as they had been in vaudeville and theater.
But starting in the 1980s, when the American Psychiatric Association added the disease of alcoholism to its official diagnostic manual, the struggle against taking a drink became a potential source of comedy as well. Think Sam Malone, the Cheers bartender and former major-league pitcher, trying to stay on the wagon while tapping the keg for his regulars. Even more pointedly, John Larroquette followed up Night Court in the early ’90s with a self-titled comedy about a rock-bottom drunk overseeing the graveyard shift at a St. Louis bus station. The John Larroquette Showbased its first 12 episodes around Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps.
Without ever setting foot in a church, Christy offers one of the most authentic models of Christianity on network television.
Today, gleeful winebibbing and beer-swilling have made a huge comeback in sitcoms. From How I Met Your Mother to Happy Endings to New Girl, unabashed drunkenness is portrayed as the glue that turns a gathering of adult friends into a non-stop party. Recovery, by contrast, is more at home on sober (if you’ll pardon the expression) dramas. How do you make people not drinking funny?
Mom cracks the code by turning the ever-present specter of relapse into a kind of comical daily grind, a cat-herding enterprise plagued by an endless stream of injustices. The only way to respond to the futility of it all is to laugh. And that laughter has a spiritual edge. The show is far from pious about the “Higher Power” of the 12 steps, but it does routinely invoke deep, hard-won faith. Christy is trying to repair her relationship with her wild-child mother and take care of her daughter - who becomes, at the end of season one, a teenage mother in her own right. As she endures the indignities of her waitressing job and drags her mom to AA meetings, she’s attempting, against all odds, to break the cycle and give the next two generations a fighting chance at avoiding addiction. As the Big Book says, the only way that’s going to happen is through a power greater than ourselves.
The moments when Christy realizes how far outside of her control that outcome lies provoke the show’s cleansing laughter. Without a hope of prevailing on our own, the battle must still be fought every day. And without ever setting foot in a church, Christy offers one of the most authentic models of Christianity on network television. Redeemed from selfish pleasure-seeking, but utterly free of moralism, she shoulders an impossible task with her eyes wide open. Kierkegaard would have loved this show - and raised his glass to it.