In 1929, the first experimental television station went on the air. Known by the catchy call letters W2XBS (subsequently dumbed down by the marketing swine to WNBC), it initially aired nothing but a daily two-hour telecast of a Felix the Cat doll spinning on a phonograph turntable.
I mention this because that W2XBS rollout was superior in every way to the first week of the 2013-14 fall season, which is now mercifully behind us. But as the second week gets under way, there are finally some shows worth watching. From pathos to paranoia, hilarity to Hannibal Lecter Lite, Monday night’s three premieres have something for everybody.
The best of the bunch — one of the best two or three shows of the new season — is CBS’ Mom, from the production team of Chuck Lorre, the guy behind Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. Like them, Mom — which stars Anna Faris as a beleaguered and nearly broken single mother — is a veritable free-fire zone of lethally funny one-liners. But beneath the armor plating of punch lines beats a wounded and affecting heart.
Faris, best known to television audiences for her role as the space-cadet unwed mother who gave up her baby to Monica and Chandler in the final season of Friends, plays Christy, a kind of flesh-and-blood instructional book on how young women can ruin their lives: a recovering alcoholic who got pregnant in high school and now is barely keeping a roof over her head, stuck in a dead-end affair with her married boss in a job she hates. Reallllly hates. To a customer who orders pounded capon with lemon grass and thyme, she whispers, “You know that’s a castrated chicken they beat with a hammer?”
Frenetic, wisecracking single moms are not exactly a new TV genre; if One Day at a Time did a reunion show, Bonnie Franklin’s whiny kids would be grandmothers. But what sets Mom apart is its aching recognition that family dysfunction often follows a multigenerational template. Christy’s passive-aggressive mother, Bonnie (Allison Janney), was also a teenage casualty of life in the fast lane, and her sullenly rebellious daughter, Violet (Sadie Calvan, ABC Family’s Melissa & Joey), is setting off the same alarms.
Though June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson left the building long ago, Mom is still a radical departure from the standard broadcast network approach to family sitcoms. It is acidly funny even its most painful moments (Christy: “I’ve watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet!” Bonnie: “It’s not a sin to be thrifty, dear.”) But the comedy is dark, often agonized and sometimes even tinged with self-loathing, as Christy recognizes that her worst fear has come true twice: Another daughter has turned into her mother.
The characters in CBS’ Hostages and NBC’s The Black List have concerns less sociological and more immediately pragmatic, like, are those terrorists shooting at me? Both shows feature John Q. Public protagonists who find themselves, suddenly and unwittingly, pawns of power players in grand political conspiracies.
In Hostages, the unlucky centerpiece is Washington, D.C., surgeon Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette), scheduled to perform a relatively routine operation on the president. The night before, however, her family is taken hostage by gunmen led by rogue FBI agent Duncan Carlisle (Dylan McDermott), who orders Sanders to kill the president during the surgery.