As the ads for the fourth season premiere of Mike & Molly played over and over on CBS, the one word that kept sticking out to me was “new.” The network was calling the show “The New Mike & Molly,” as if it was a remake or reimgaining, much like NBC tried to do with Ironside. It got to the point where I jokingly asked a CBS publicist if the “new” part meant that the title characters were joining a legion of super heroes, to which he coyly replied, “I think you may be on to something.”
But when the season premiere finally aired on Nov. 4 and we saw Melissa McCarthy roll herself out Molly Biggs’ classroom window after the character quit her job, the change became apparent right away: The producers were finally going to unleash their best comedy asset and let McCarthy do what’s made her a star in movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat.
The obvious question, though, is not why they made this change. It’s why on earth did it take them so long to do it?
I’ve been a fan of McCarthy’s for a long time, ever since I saw her play Lorelai Gilmore’s best friend Sookie on Gilmore Girls over a decade ago. In her three major TV roles — Gilmore, Samantha Who?, and M&M — she played everyone’s sweet but batty best friend (or girlfriend, in the latter case). She was someone who could get a little unhinged every so often, as her Samantha character was, but always went back to being sweet and loyal, with a kind look and a smile on her face.
Because I had only known her from those roles, however, it was a shock when I saw her in Bridesmaids. It wasn’t just the fact that she stole every scene she was in; I had no idea she was capable of such extreme physical comedy. She threw herself all over the screen as the more-macho-than-the-guys Megan, and stood out in both the dress shop diarrhea scene and the scene on the plane where she tries to pick up a U.S. Marshal (played by husband Ben Falcone).
Of course, anyone who followed her work in the Groundlings or saw her series of Marbles Harsgrove videos on YouTube knew that she had an amazing ability to disappear into comedic characters that were as funny for their physicality as they were for what they were saying. But to the vast majority of fans, McCarthy as Megan in Bridesmaids was a revelation.
She did such a good job with that role that she got an Oscar nomination for it; she also won an Emmy in 2011 for Mike & Molly, but to most observers, the award was more for Bridesmaids than anything else. Why? Because during the first season of M&M, we saw the McCarthy we’ve been seeing on TV for years, which was nice, but certainly not Emmy-worthy, especially compared to her tour de force in Bridesmaids. After that summer, though, I had a fleeting thought that we would be seeing more of the physical McCarthy, the one who was quickly becoming a huge star and being cast in leading roles in big movies.
But that didn’t happen. Sure, we’d see glimpses, but for the next two seasons we saw the same smiling, dutiful Molly that we saw the first season. Meanwhile, the other, funnier version of McCarthy was falling and kicking and punching her way through Identity Thief and The Heat, both of which became hits, and making two SNL hosting appearances that are considered amongst the best of the last decade. And while it seemed that the world of Mike & Molly got crazier and funnier as the characters around Molly started to develop, McCarthy continued to play more or less the straight man to all the wackiness. And, boy, it got frustrating to watch.
It makes me wonder if it didn’t also frustrate series producer Chuck Lorre, CBS, or both, as this change in the show coincides with a new showrunner. At the end of season 3, it was announced that the show’s creator, Mark Roberts, would be leaving, and would be replaced by co-exec producer Al Higgins. Roberts always envisioned the show as a love story, where two normal people find each other in their 30s and embark on a true-t0-life romance, complete with dealing with each others’ crazy families, financial issues, and other things people deal with every day. There was never a will-they-won’t-they element to the show; Mike and Molly met, fell in love, got engaged, moved in together, got married, and tried to have a baby. Everything that went on around them is what defined the show. Molly’s drunk mom and toking sister, Mike’s needy partner and ball-breaking mother, the pathetic friend they met at OA; all of them drove the comedy most weeks, leaving the title couple to be observers in their own story.
That meant, though, that McCarthy’s skills couldn’t be utilized to their fullest. Was one of the problems Roberts had was that he refused to unleash his star? So far, there’s no word on if that’s a reason why he left the show.
But now that he’s gone, the change is pretty stark. With Molly out in the world looking to find herself a new career, the focus has shifted from “let’s have a sweet story about this nice couple” to “let’s watch Melissa be as crazy as she was in the movies.” And, you know what? The first two episodes of the season are a lot funnier because of it. Who didn’t have a belly laugh when Molly challenged Mike’s mom to a fight and kicked out the coffee table to make room? Who didn’t like it when she wrote herself as a Chicago cop cleaning drug dealing scum off the streets?
Of course, now the show needs to figure out how to incorporate McCarthy’s physicality without going off kilter. In the first two episodes, the roles seemed reversed, with Mike and the show’s supporting characters being the straight men that McCarthy was all those years. It would be a shame if the nice ensemble the show’s built over the first three seasons was reduced to being one-dimensional observers in order to showcase McCarthy. But, at this early point in the season, fans need to give the writers a few episodes to find that balance again. This is definitely a “new” Mike & Molly, and should almost be treated like a new sitcom. And what new sitcom doesn’t take a while to find itself? I just hope that when it does, we get to keep seeing Movie McCarthy, not Best Friend McCarthy.