In the pilot of Mike & Molly (M&M), a thirty-something patrol officer named Mike Biggs (Billy Gardell) meets a fourth-grade teacher of similar age named Molly Flynn (Melissa McCarthy) at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. Molly is attracted to Mike's gently self-deprecating wit as he shares in front of the meeting about his struggles with his weight. She compliments him after the meeting, and Mike is instantly drawn to Molly, too, but he breaks a finger leaning on a frail table, and their "cute meet" is drastically broken up. When both have second thoughts about taking the romantic risk of going out together, Mike's fellow patrol officer and best friend, Carl McMillan (Reno Wilson) pushes Mike, and Molly's mother Joyce Flynn (Swoosie Kurtz) and her sister Victoria Flynn (Katy Mixon) push Molly, encouraging them to give each other a chance. The growing relationship of Mike and Molly, two unconventional and extremely endearing romantic partners, forms the core of the show.
M&M premiered on CBS on September 20, 2010 and had 24 episodes for its first season--which used to be the norm for a sitcom season, but is rare these days of 10-13-episode seasons. My husband and I watched every one of the episodes together, and many more than once since we had TiVo'd them. We were laughing hysterically throughout, adored the characters, and were completely thrilled when immediately before the final episode aired May 16, 2011, CBS announced it had renewed the series for a second season.
This show is executive produced by Chuck Lorre, who has had many, many hit shows. He served as writer/producer for Roseanne, and creator/writer/producer for Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Dharma & Greg, The Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men (THM). M&M followed THM (a show that continued to do quite well even after the Charlie Sheen implosion) which gave it a boost by providing an initial audience. It was the show itself, though, that held onto that audience by delivering talented actors with consistently terrific comic performances, hilarious scripts, and the supervision of one of the all-time greatest sitcom directors, James Burrows (best known for Frasier, Taxi, and Will & Grace). All of these things together produced a whole that is greater even than the sum of these extraordinary parts--the melding of the show's ensemble cast into a team whose collaboration is nothing short of magical.
Like all sitcoms, M&M thrives on clever insult humor. This is a staple of standup comedy as well, which is where the two stars have their roots. (I haven't had the pleasure of watching Melissa McCarthy do standup, but I have seen Billy Gardell on Comedy Central, and he is outstanding.) One of the most difficult tasks of sitcom is to achieve two diametrically-opposed goals at the same time, and make them both believable: keep the laughs coming through hilarious insults which, if taken literally, would blow up most relationships in the real world, while simultaneously convincing the audience that these people aren't heartless jerks but rather decent folks capable of caring deeply about each other, either currently, or potentially.
Accomplishing this balancing act is all or nothing in the sitcom genre. When it happens well, a sitcom succeeds. When it doesn't, the show fails. There is no question in my own mind that this show succeeds in that balance 100%. Even characters whose primary function is as a comic antagonist are lovable. A prime example is Mike's mother, Peggy, played by one of the most incredible comic talents I've seen in years, Broadway actress Rondi Reed. Peggy is very protective of her son, and as a result she constantly insults Molly in extremely funny ways, but she ultimately ends up counting on Molly to take care of her dog, Jim, when she has a major health problem. (More on wonderful, wonderful Jim below!)
Another example of a great comic antagonist is Officer Carl's grandmother, whom Mike affectionately calls, "Nana." She is played by the stunningly talented Cleo King, best known for her roles as Aunt Lou in the HBO drama series Deadwood and Helene Parks in Boston Public. Carl lives with Nana, and she is constantly busting his chops, but there is never any doubt she loves Carl. (Interesting tidbit: Cleo/Nana is only seven years older than Carl/Reno in real life, meaning he is successfully playing someone about 10-12 younger than he is, and she's doing a great job playing someone 20 years older than her real age. This reminds me of Estelle Getty in The Golden Girls terrifically playing a part 20 years older than her actual age.)
The truth is, there isn't a single actor in this show who isn't doing a great job, and the writers and director obviously know what treasures they have, because every week they rotate giving one of the supporting actors a plum subplot to shine in. This review is getting long, but I just have to commend the rest of the team:
As Joyce Flynn, Swoosie Kurtz has taken on a role that in the hands of a less skilled actor might have become merely a stereotype of a pathetic older woman who fights her fear of aging by engaging in a series of disastrous affairs with awful men. Instead, Swoosie plays Joyce as a vibrant, energetic woman with a joyous attitude who never judges anyone around her. Her loving nature and utter acceptance of the people she loves often moves me to tears in the midst of laughter. Yes she is oversexed and often raunchy, but in Swoosie's capable hands, Joyce never comes off as crude, because she is just so darn endearing.
Ditto for Katy Mixon as Victoria Flynn. Mixon does an awe-inspiring job with a role that in so many TV and movie comedies is completely one-dimensional, the no-ambition, Stoner guy/gal. In particular, there is an episode centered on her called "Victoria's Birthday," in which she has an early midlife crisis on turning 30 that is both extremely funny and very moving as she tries out different ways to bring meaning into her life. Her weekly riffs on her job applying makeup to dead people in a funeral home are also excruciatingly funny.
Carl/Reno and Joyce's boyfriend Vince (Louis Mustillo, Tony's gardener Sal Vitro on The Sopranos) are so talented at delivering one-liners, my husband and I thought they were standup comedians. As it turns out, they are not, but they certainly have a gift for comedic acting. An episode toward the end of the season where Vince takes Mike and Carl out on the best night of their lives to a sporting event, a locker-room visit, and driving around in a limo is both touching and full of belly laughs and puts both Carl and Vince in the spotlight.
Nyambi Nyambi plays Samuel, a wise-cracking Senegalese waiter who works at Mike and Carl's favorite café. He has an acting MFA from NYU, and this show is his first big break. He is certainly making the most of it. His deadpan delivery of some great lines is very funny. He gets his chance to take center stage in an episode where Mike's advice gets him fired, and Mike allows him to stay at his apartment until he gets back on his feet.
Last but not least is Peggy's dog, Jim. He is utterly adorable. His breed is Brussels Griffon. They are described as having an almost-human expression, and I agree! They are a toy breed known to be proud, intelligent, strong, and very comical, so even the dog they hired is a talented comic! The Brussels Griffon is a Belgian breed and its ancestors were the Stable Griffon, a Belgian street dog, and the Affenpinscher, a wiry-haired terrier-like toy dog. In the late 19th century, it was also interbred with the Pug. The breed usually has a very active nature, so the trainer has done an amazing job with Jim, getting him to sit as still as he often does and do an unnerving stare. It reminds me of the dog on Frasier. Jim, too, has had his times to shine, in particular in Episode 15, which is named after him, "Jim Won't Eat," in which Peggy asks Molly to watch him while she goes to the hospital.