20 Minutes of Horror with Mike & Molly

I hear that Mike & Molly, that CBS slab of multi-camera comedy from Chuck Lorre, is a popular show. Right? I mean, it keeps popping up on my television set, and Swoosie Kurtz and Melissa McCarthy are in there, so I’m assuming that it pulls in a healthy share of American eyeballs. I even checked some ratings online, but I quickly gave up because ratings numbers mean nothing to me. They look tiny. Three point something? Four point something? Bring on the analysts.

I watched an episode the other night. It seemed like a harmless idea, and anyway I’ve always liked McCarthy, from Go to Gilmore Girls to Bridesmaids. It was clear within moments what the show was pretending to be: a heartwarming comedy about working-class Chicagoans. There’s a conscious effort to latch on to the long-gone glories of early Roseanne, if you exorcise the ghost of social consciousness that haunted that show.

Actually, there are two spectres that Mike & Molly seek to eradicate. Along with any honest examination of what it means to be working-class in 21st century America (granted, I’ve only seen a fraction of the M&M corpus, so maybe the bulk of the episodes are all about Samuel the waiter agitating for a union), the show also wants to destroy any trace of human warmth beyond the titular characters’ love for each other. Mike & Molly is an unrelieved hellscape of addiction and infantilism in which two damaged people seek to survive in a world of monsters wearing human skin.

To judge from the laugh track, we’re supposed to find this parade of misery and dysfunction funny. This horror was created to deliver a small spark of brightness to our Monday nights.

First we’ll take a quick look at the characters. Then I will guide you, in terrifying detail, through every mean-spirited barb and degrading moment in episode 22 of season two.

Mike Biggs, a morbidly obese policeman engaged to Molly Flynn.

Molly Flynn, a fourth grade teacher living with her mother and sister.

Carl McMillan, Mike’s partner on the police force. He lives with his grandmother Rosetta and apparently has uncontrollable issues with anger and insecurity.

Samuel, a Senegalese waiter who has not been granted a last name by the show. He insults Mike.

Joyce Flynn, Molly’s alcoholic mother. Engaged to an unattractive liar named Vince Moranto.

Victoria Flynn, Molly’s dissolute pothead sister.

Peggy Biggs, Mike’s awful, awful mother.

There are others. They are no better. Now we can proceed to the laughs.

Int. night. Black Duck Restaurant.

00:17 - Mike makes a crude joke about his mother possibly committing violence on his father during the wedding.

00:22 - Molly remembers that the cutlery needs to be changed in order to prevent possible violence.

00:27 - Mike comments on his mother’s ability to turn any implement into a weapon.

00:33 - Mike says that even the soup should be cold, as hot soup could be thrown in one’s face and cause blisters. Remember that the studio audience is laughing at these jokes.

00:47 - Molly refers to her own capacity for craziness but uses pidgin Spanish. This gives her craziness a mock-heroic edge, and she may actually be comparing herself to a hypothetical luchadore. The joke relies on the image of Melissa McCarthy as a masked Mexican wrestler in a singlet.

00:49 - Mike responds in pidgin Spanish as well, indicating that Molly is even crazier than she lets on. It’s possible that the well-known craziness of Latinos is generating some subtextual and slightly racist laughs.

01:15 - After a 25-second setup, Mike decides to stay with Carl the night before the wedding because the house where he planned to stay will have women in it. The presence of women is unacceptable to Mike.

01:23 - Carl informs Mike that his house will also contain women. Two houses with women is doubly unacceptable and therefore doubly funny, in theory.

01:30 - Mike will also not stay with his mother, because his mother’s company is as unpleasant as electric shocks to the mouth and oral contact with dangerous wildlife.

01:40 - Mike thinks that Molly may desire his emotional ill-health on the day of his wedding, presumably in order to increase his dependence on her.

01:57 - Christina (Carl’s girlfriend) refuses to respond to Carl’s earnest declaration of love. Her rebuff of Carl’s feelings is mildly hilarious. Even funnier is Mike and Molly’s refusal to acknowledge Carl’s pain in that moment.

Int. Day. Carl’s car.

02:39 - Mike, on the phone with Molly, feels awkward about professing his love for Molly in Carl’s presence. His lack of engagement with his best friend and colleague’s emotional crisis provides a rich vein of comedy.

02:48 - Mike lies to Molly.

02:54 - Mike attempts to pretend to Carl that the conversation to which Carl was privy didn’t happen. This wild counterfactual is not accepted.

02:58 - When Carl broaches the subject of Christina’s lack of affection, Mike feigns ignorance.

03:06 - A fanciful metaphor from Carl comparing emotional candor to eating at a Japanese steakhouse.

03:10 - Carl claims that the entire restaurant heard him declare his love for Christina - a difficult claim to justify, since we saw him say “Christina, I love you” in a soft voice only one minute and 15 seconds ago.

03:12 - Carl was hugged by the busboy, which again seems unlikely. Wouldn’t Mike have seen this happen? Some of the laughs here must come from Carl’s deranged hyperbole.

03:24 - Suicidal ideation from Carl.

03:30 - Carl insults a selection of blameless desserts.

03:37 - Carl feels that even a flippant response to an “I love you” would be acceptable.

03:46 - Carl refuses to respond to Mike’s attempts at connection.

Int. Day. Flynn household

03:54 - Vince is wearing a black leather suit. We are meant to laugh because he takes pride in his appearance in the suit.

03:59 - Vince defends his sartorial choice but doesn’t seem to know much about leather goods.

04:05 - Vince participates in semi-legal drug sales.

04:10 - Joyce disparages her fiance’s appearance.

04:15 - Crotch joke.

04:24 - Molly indicates that the leather suit should be returned to the cow, which seems like a singularly monstrous act, since the cow is either dead or in perpetual agony from being flayed.

04:31 - The suit is revealed to be the product of unborn cow skin.

04:38 - Molly compares her mother’s boyfriend to an assassin who is also a homosexual.

04:49 - Molly casually threatens to murder Vincent by burying him alive.

04:58 - A reference to inappropriate nudity is funny.

05:01 - Molly implies that her sister is so incapable of self-management that she can’t even wear underwear without prompting.

05:07 - Joyce compares Victoria to a dog. This is the first dog joke of the episode.

05:29 - Vince wants to save his money for important purchases. In the hopeless universe of Mike & Molly, this bit of practical ambition is treated as pure folly, richly deserving of laughter.

05:38 - Molly compares Vince to a failing, disgusting machine. It’s a weird joke, now that I think about it.

Int. Day. André’s Big and Tall Clothing Store.

05:43 - Mike enjoys his appearance in a tuxedo. He compares himself to a well-known pop culture figure.

05:47 - The pop culture gag is blended with a clothing size reference to remind us that Mike is tremendously overweight.

05:53 - Mike’s friend Harry also appreciates his appearance in formal wear. Because we are supposed to find him sexually uninteresting, his vanity amuses.

06:03 - André’s clothing comes with candy, which is funny because fat people like to eat candy.

06:06 - Predictably, Mike and Harry like the candy.

06:09 - Carl and Samuel are wearing clothes too large. This makes them look funny, because they should be wearing clothes that fit. Neither seem to notice because Carl is too consumed with self-doubt and resentment to recognize the outside world.

06:17 - Samuel undercuts Carl with an emasculating and infantilizing insult.

06:23 - Samuel repeats the emasculating and infantilizing insult. The line is successfully recycled by transforming the sentence from a declarative statement into a subordinate clause.

06:29 - Samuel makes an honest attempt to reach out to Carl. Carl responds with fury.

06:37 - André calls Carl and Samuel’s maturity and masculinity into question.

06:41 - 06:43 - At this point we get the only joke so far (and probably for the entire episode) that isn’t based on insults or making light of living one’s days out in a universe so void of purpose that even Matthew Arnold couldn’t put a positive spin on the situation. Instead, we get a compact and clever bit of wordplay. This was probably an accident.

06:53 - Harry exults in his friends’ lack of dignity.

07:01 - Mike pretends to be an alien from a planet of obese people, thereby pointing out the massive gulf that exists between the physically acceptable and unacceptable.

07:09 - Harry again comments on his attractiveness in a way that reminds us of his obesity and somehow shoehorns in a strangely racist comment. It may be coincidental, but the shot is set up to suggest otherwise.

07:25 - Again, Mike comments on the possibility of violence between his parents. There is a suggestion that massive casualties are possible.

07:30 - Samuel conflates sexual aggression with Somali injustice.

07:45 - Samuel and Harry bargain for Victoria’s vagina with candy.

08:01 - Samuel tells Carl that, unlike Mike, he has no love in his life.

08:04 - Carl threatens Samuel with violence. It turns out that he’s aware of his oversized clothing but it does not concern him.

Int. Night. Church.

08:21 - Mike is still obsessed with the possibility of violence. He now believes that every wedding guest is crazy.

08:23 - 08:45 - Carl’s grandmother implies that she is in a sexual relationship with the priest officiating at Mike and Molly’s wedding. However, since the topic of the elderly engaging in coitus with the clergy cannot be directly addressed, this joke requires substantial misdirection and relies on a setup that takes over 20 seconds to reach its payoff.

Here’s a rule of thumb in this kind of comedy: the touchier the subject, the more setup it requires in order to establish the “rules” of the joke. These rules create a series of euphemisms or substitutions that allow the real content of the joke to be deployed without actually giving offense. The joke here is not about the fact that an old lady is fucking a priest, but that the two have to balance a working and a romantic relationship without being entirely candid about it. Therefore the labored approach to the joke is actually a successful approximation of how we deal with sexually and socially uncomfortable situations in reality. The actual payoff, though, is that Carl’s grandmother is not interested in the niceties of euphemism, and takes pleasure in using her partner’s abstemiousness to embarrass him in public.

08:55 - Brother Heywood admits to Mike that he has carnal urges. Heywood is played by Reginald VelJohnson, the only actor to appear on every single episode of Family Matters.

09:01 - Holy crap, they’re still laughing over the notion of a horny old priest. In a show that runs 20 minutes, this is 2.5% of the total running time, or 2.5%. Ask yourself if you spend 2.5% of your days laughing at the notion of priests doing it with old people.

09:15 - The first appearance of Mike’s mother Peggy involves a display of her monstrous vanity.

09:27 - Peggy is so repulsed by the notion of sitting next to her ex-husband that she deploys a blasphemous comment with an incredibly outdated pop culture reference.

09:36 - An inexplicably nasty insult from Peggy that isn’t particularly funny, even by the standards of Mike & Molly.

09:40 - A reminder of the sacred status of the building elicits mild laughs.

9:49 - Peggy suggests that her ex-husband commit a somewhat elaborate suicide. It’s worth noting that the ex-husband has had two lines so far, and both have enjoined her to shut up.

09:53 - Molly offers a reasonable solution, but her exasperated tone of voice is enough to goose the laugh track.

10:01 - 10:05 - Extreme bodily harm promised.

10:28 - Joyce’s monstrous vanity is revealed as well, showing that all the older women on the show are either sexually voracious women questing after lost youth or embittered battleaxes.

10:29 - Actual physical violence.

10:36 - Harry notes the degree of pain inflicted on him.

10:53 - Samuel insults Carl to Christina.

10:58 - Samuel repeats the emasculating/infantilizing insult again, this time modifying it into a gerund.

11:07 - Carl rejoices quietly under the mistaken impression that the woman he loves has been insulted.

11:23 - Molly disparages Vince’s odour.

11:42 - Vince reveals that he is already married. No laughs.

11:45 - Rosetta repeats Vince’s confession. This time there are laughs.

12:00 - Harry makes a casual comment revealing that he prefers eating at the local Olive Garden over empathising with human beings.

Int. Night. Flynn house.

12:24 - Molly’s assertion that the evening is “fun” runs counter to the events of the previous scene, which was marked by jealousy, anger, lies and guilt.

12:30 - Vince’s weak justification for lying to Joyce is funny.

12:34 - Molly threatens Vince with bodily harm.

12:45 - Molly attempts to persuade Mike to murder Vince.

12:50 - Mike refuses to acquiesce to Molly’s demands, but it is understood that his refusal actually constitutes tacit willingness to perform the deed. Molly requests that substantial physical pain precede the moment of death.

13:10 - Vince blames his predicament on Mike and Molly’s upcoming nuptials.

13:14 - Carl blames his predicament on Mike and Molly’s upcoming nuptials. Both Vince and Carl scapegoat the only decent people in their universe.

13:31 - Vince is struck by his toiletries and clothing.

13:35 - Vince employs comic understatement to encapsulate the devastation his actions have had on Joyce.

Int. Night. Molly’s bedroom.

13:49 - Victoria casually remarks on Joyce’s massive alcohol problem.

13:53 - Victoria describes the process by which she has stolen her mother’s alcohol for her own consumption.

14:04 - Molly acknowledges that most of her close friends and family are insane.

14:51 - A nice bit of wordplay concerning Victoria’s thoughtful gift for Molly. The shift in register from sentimental to jocular diminishes the earnest nature of the scene and reminds us the ravening wolves of misery are only sleeping.

15:08 - Victoria says something dumb through her tears.

15:10 - Molly asks that Victoria wear appropriate undergarments to the wedding. This request is greeted with a hug instead of hurt incomprehension.

Int. Night. Apartment hallway.

15:28 Vince employs a colourful metaphor involving testicles to describe his ex-wife.

15:34 It turns out that the testicle metaphor was actually literal, and that Vince’s ex-wife employs physical violence as a means of settling disagreements.

15:41 Carl fixates on his own problems.

15:55 Vince insults his ex-wife.

16:03 Vince is younger than his ex.

16:07 Carl points out that Vince’s ex is extremely old.

16:12 Vince assures his friends that his ex was sexually attractive at one time.

16:20 Vince suggests to his ex-wife that she will be dead within months.

16:39 Vince’s ex seems to think that he’s attractive and sophisticated. The joke relies on the viewer’s knowledge that Vince is ugly and crude.

16:45 Vince implies that his ex is a witch.

16:47 Mike treats Vince as if he’s a dog. This is the second joke in the episode that implicitly compares humans to dogs.

16:54 The ex describes their former passion. Vince insults her age.

17:01 Carl fixates on his problems. Unrequited and asymmetrical love is the theme of this episode.

17:11 Vince’s ex expresses her desire to do physical harm to Vince.

17:20 Vince points out that his ex-wife is old.

17:40 The conflict appears to be about money as much as love.

17:44 Vince points out that his ex-wife is old.

17:48 Vince points out that his ex-wife is extremely old.

18:02 Mike negotiates an exchange of money and an act of extreme violence on Vince in order to end the scene.

Int. Night. Biggs household.

18:26 Peggy Biggs punctures notions of tradition.

18:30 Peggy says “hymen.”

18:35 Mike shrugs off Peggy’s description of barbaric patriarchal practices with weary understatement.

18:50 Mike employs syllepsis to describe Vince’s situation. Genitals are mentioned.

18:56 Peggy opines that the Flynn family is crazy, clearly unaware of her own craziness.

19:07 A voice from upstairs reveals that Peggy’s ex-husband is present.

19:13 A small bit of wordplay from Peggy implies that she and Mike’s father are engaging in sex.

19:21 Mike’s father greets Mike with friendly nonchalance. Throughout this scene Mike’s father is holding a dog. His mother is holding a piece of cake.

You’ll note that characters in multi-camera sitcoms often hold items throughout a scene. These props become iconic signifiers that we associate with the character’s core personality traits. Mike’s dad holds a dog; therefore he is a dog. Mike’s mother is the sort of person who takes cake to bed. Also, note that the visual link between Mike’s father and the dog is the third joke in the episode to suggest that humans are no better than canines.

19:25 - 19:40 - Ongoing low-level laughs as MIke’s parents trade barbs and head back to bed. The final line is an ambiguous bit that initially sounds like sexual innuendo but actually makes no sense as a joke when you think about it, which you shouldn’t.


So there you go. Twenty televised minutes of insult and heartbreak, with one sentimental scene thrown in to punctuate and highlight the despair.