Perhaps we are ready to discuss weight and size more openly. Mike & Molly does its part by showcasing some common insensitivities.
Mike (Billy Gardell) and Molly (Melissa McCarthy) are fat. As though that weren't quite apparent, the opening scenes of CBS' new sitcom Mike & Molly features the two separately discussing their weight issues with respective friends and family. Despite their concerns about their weight, Mike and Molly are able to laugh about it too, along with everyone else they know. In fact, the premiere episode dropped more fat jokes than an episode of The Sopranos dropped the "f-bomb."
The very first line of dialogue in the series points out that Mike is a "large" man, and the gags at his expense continue through the opening scene. Mike's cop partner, Carl (Reno Wilson), even notes that he would shoot the pathetic Mike, but, "I don't have enough chalk to outline your body." Switch to Molly's home, where she's with her mother Joyce (Swoosie Kurtz) and voluptuous stoner sister Victoria (Katy Mixon). Molly is working valiantly to burn calories on an exercise machine while the others sit and munch on double chocolate blackout cake.
If the comedy is overstated, so too is the related requisite point, that in addition to being overweight, Mike and Molly are lonely and socially awkward. Their first encounter is shaped by what we know they want. When Molly is impressed with Mike's testimony at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, she introduces herself and invites him to come speak to her elementary class about being a policeman. Naturally, the inept Mike blows the occasion, by concluding his heartwarming story about his dad, also a cop, by mentioning that dad fell in love with a prostitute and left his mother. A further attempt to impress Molly is blown when Mike dislocates a finger.
Still, there is little doubt that their mutual attraction will lead Mike and Molly eventually to hook up (per the show's title). This obvious inevitability doesn't allow for much romantic tension, thus the premiere episode takes the easy route with the fat jokes, as opposed to focusing on, say, personality quirks or emotional complexities.
In this, Mike & Molly is typical of other TV shows -- usually sitcoms -- that feature characters with weight problems. The most notable is Roseanne, the first series to make the characters' weight an important part of their self-images and worldviews. Typically, the overweight character in a show is male (think: Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners, Ed Asner on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Kevin James on The King of Queens, to name just a few). Lucille Ball famously had it written into her contract that Vivian Vance would always be heavier than her on I Love Lucy (and Vance was never "overweight"), but generally, overweight women haven't appeared on TV as frequently as their male counterparts. When Delta Burke gained weight while on Designing Women, the show glossed over the change in her appearance until it could ignore it no longer, and then highlighted Suzanne's weight in the classic "They Shoot Fat Women, Don't They?" episode.
While all of these earlier shows made mention of the overweight character's size, sometimes cruelly, the weight wasn't the star of the show. However, in recent years, a cultural reassessment of size has occurred, as more plus size models are finding work, and Dove drew attention for its "Real Women", as did Fruit of the Loom for the "BeautiFull-Figured" image. Daily, we are reminded of weight problems with news stories about obesity and health, helped along by Michelle Obama's "Let's Move." campaign.
Perhaps we are ready to discuss weight and size, as well as prejudices and anxieties, more openly. Mike & Molly does its part by showcasing some common insensitivities, such as the kid in Molly's class asking Mike how he can be a cop and be fat, or Molly wishing for a time when she can go to a club without "every queen in the place leaping on me like I'm a gay pride float." Similarly, the show explores the temptation to use food as a crutch, as Mike goes off his diet in response to his botched interactions with Molly.
Still, the preponderance of fat jokes raises doubts about the show's earnestness. No one is admonished for making the jokes, and no one points out their meanness. When Carl says Mike could get Molly with just a taffy apple, it reinforces the idea that an overweight person's world is regulated by food. Mike breaks his finger when a table collapses under his own weight, telling viewers that size is an appropriate source of slapstick humor. That Mike and Molly so frequently engage in self-deprecating humor bolsters the stereotype of the "jolly fat person."
When the subject isn't their size, Mike and Molly are likable people (although it is discomforting to see Molly repeatedly scream at her school kids to "shut up"). And, frankly, the premiere's funniest don't focus on weight (these are also the lines featured most frequently in trailers, suggesting that someone is aware of the line the fat jokes are walking). Let's hope for a time -- soon -- when Mike & Molly runs out of fat jokes and moves on to explore the dynamics of two people falling in love while working to overcome personal demons.