The first time I read the premise of Mike & Molly, I had to admit to feeling more than a little wary. A sitcom centered on the romance of two plus-sized Chicagoans who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting? Given the present day sitcom’s propensity for put-down humor, how could that go wrong?
Too, as the co-author of a plus-sized soap opera set in the same city as this show, I can’t help feeling just a twinge possessive about the use of the Windy City as the site for a sparkling romance. When this week’s episode — “Mike’s New Boots” — featured a secondary character joking about taking his date out on a carriage ride, I found myself mentally contrasting the moment to a romantic scene in our own book. The sitcom joke was played for crass humor, and I let out a very loud sigh when I heard it.
But let’s put authorial comparisons aside and focus on the series before us, okay? As a character comedy, Mike & Molly veers wildly between the appealing and the cringe worthy. On the debit side, there’s the show’s character defining set-up. From the onset, our overeating twelve-steppers define themselves as out-of-control gorgers: a stereotype, to be sure, and one that lends itself to the kind of self-deprecating comedy that fat comedians have overused for ages (Totie Fields, anyone?) Every food-related scene — and since one of the show’s sets is a city diner, you know you’re gonna get at least one per ep — features a gluttony joke. Because that’s all every fat person does is think about food all the time, right?
Then, of course, there are the inevitable fat jokes, which have admittedly lessened as the show has progressed but still provide fallback punch lines for the writers. I’m not automatically opposed to fat jokes on a show like this — in this culture, it’d be outlandish to act as if a character like Billy Gardell’s policeman Mike Biggs wouldn’t hear such cracks over the course of a working day — but I wish the ones we got were better written. When Mike tries on a pair of cowboy boots and recalls how the kids used to call him “Belly the Kid,” I couldn’t tell if it was meant to be a riff on the childishness of young boys’ insults or a straight-up joke. Either way I didn’t laugh.
What’s brought me back to the series for nine weeks now, though, is the title twosome: Gardell’s teddy beat copper and his spunky teacher girlfriend Molly Flynn (the very watchable Melissa McCarthy). The duo have an appealing chemistry that makes their budding relationship believable, and when it comes to charting this, the writers display a surprising sensitivity to both the universality and specificity of their characters’ new situation.
In this week’s episode, for instance, Molly gets understandably miffed when Mike flirts with a zaftig newcomer (Rebecca Fields) to their OA group. Our hero, who’s “never gotten this kind of attention from a woman before” is so dazzled by the idea that two BBWs might find him attractive that he doesn’t even recognize he’s slighting his girlfriend. Because both characters are relative novices in the dating game, they both make their share of believable rookie errors: Mike more than Molly, of course, because he is, after all, a guy.
Too, and rather amazingly, the show’s writers have very quickly established our couple as sexual beings. While this storytelling decision has sparked at least one backlash article on the Marie Claire website, it’s still a positive one. Too often, fat characters get treated as either asexual beings or creatures whose sexual appetite is as voracious as their gluttony. It’s refreshing to see two full-figured adults who enjoy sex even as they keep the focus on each other. Grown-up romance: who’d have thunk we’d get that in a comedy from the creators of Two and a Half Men?
Whether other viewers will be able to get to the romance at the core of Mike & Molly most likely depends on their tolerance for easy jokes and the occasional awkwardly inserted self-help homily. I’m still with the show, though I keep hoping that M&M start spending less time beating themselves up and more focusing on what they’ve actually got. Or that Mike finally lets out a Ralph Kramden-esque bellow at his partner Carl (Reno Wilson) after he lets out the inevitable Ed Norton-y rip. Ain’t gonna happen, of course, but a viewer can dream.