When Al Higgins took over as showrunner on Mike & Molly in May, executive producer Chuck Lorre posed a question that he couldn't answer.
"We sat down and the first thing Chuck Lorre said to me was, 'Why is Melissa McCarthy a movie star and not a TV star?' And I had no idea," Higgins tells TVGuide.com. "I was stumped. And he said, 'In her movies, people react to her and on the show, she reacts to everyone else.' I thought about that and he was right. He said, 'I want to flip that dynamic.'"
Fall TV Report Card: How's the new class doing?
And thus, the "new" Mike & Molly was born. Nearly 30 freshmen series premiered this fall, but no show was more prominently or frequently billed as "new" than the four-year-old CBS sitcom. "That was all CBS," Higgins says with a laugh. "But it's certainly not wrong to say that. We did reboot it, and I think it's great that we did."
Following Lorre's edict, Higgins & Co. went to work "unleashing" straight man Molly (McCarthy) into a classic, outrageous McCarthy the Movie Star character we've seen just this year alone in Identity Thief and The Heat. That manifested in Molly having a midlife crisis in the season premiere and quitting her teaching job by sliding out of the window during class to write a book instead.
While Molly's epiphany might seem abrupt (though when does it not in a revamp?), Higgins says keeping her in the classroom was never an option for Mike & Molly 2.0. "It's like, how can you have a midlife crisis if you're still doing your 9-to-5 job? Molly's home life is great. I don't know if it's ever happened to you, but once one thing is good, you start looking at other things in your life," he says.
"Honestly, when we started this, we actually didn't know where we were going to go. We just knew she just wanted to be out of her job," Higgins continues. "She just couldn't do it for 30 years. We just sort of found this niche for her that became a real thing that Molly would do, especially with all the J.K. Rowlings and the 50 Shades of Grey author — all these women who have taken a chance on themselves to write. Molly is smart and open-minded, so this seemed like a real good fit. She was falling away a little bit on the show, so we had to ask why and how to bring her back in it, and this is how."
25 totally unnecessary spin-offs
Perhaps the bigger question is: Why didn't the show do this two years ago to piggyback on McCarthy's ascent to stardom (and Oscar nomination) from Bridesmaids? Higgins, who took over for creator Mike Roberts, says a reboot then was never discussed because "Bridesmaids sort of took us by surprise," and the show was still in the middle of its courtship between Mike (Billy Gardell) and Molly. Now that they're happily married though, Higgins admits that the writers have been "scrambling for stories a little bit." Much of Season 3 followed Mike and Molly's quest to start a family, but the original pregnancy story line planned for Season 4 has now been indefinitely shelved.
"If she's pregnant, there's no physical comedy," Higgins says. "We asked Melissa, 'Do you mind that you're not pregnant?' And she said, 'Oh, my God! That's great. I can do things then!' So we were all excited about no baby! We're not going to go crazy with the physicality; we pulled it back. It's got to be part of the story and grounded. As a writer, it's harder to find conflict when everything is good, especially in comedy. In many ways, [the change] was necessary."
Though the reboot is ostensibly to turn McCarthy, who won an Emmy for Mike & Molly in 2011, into a "TV star," Higgins feels the new arc not only allows Molly to interact more with the rest of the cast, but is also an organic next step in the unpredictable ebbs and flows of a marriage. With Molly pursuing her dream, Mike is now the sole breadwinner in the household, which becomes problematic soon.
"Molly was the rock before, and now Mike is. That switch happens in relationships," Higgins says. "But financially, they're not secure. It gets to the point where Mike says, 'C'mon. You can't live your life like you were. There's only one income coming in here.' When we told Billy [about the reboot], he went online and studied Jack Benny's reactions and [Jackie] Gleason's, the old comics who were so great at a slow burn. I think not only will you see Molly differently, but Mike too. ... Billy's really in these scenes emotionally."
Because the writers spent the hiatus rejiggering the show, there's no concrete outline for the rest of the season. "Honestly, we're planning the next show as we're taping one," Higgins quips. One thing he can promise though is that Mike and Molly will never break up. "At the core, it's a love story between these two people, and I think that's what people respond to and love."
The best and worst TV reboots
Speaking of viewer response, Higgins says he has no idea how fans feel about the revamp. He stopped reading fan comments after taking heat not for the new direction of the show, but the new opening credits.
"We changed the opening credits too, and they went crazy!" he says. "People love their opening credits and people hate change. That's what I've learned. But I think fans will ultimately be happy with the direction of the show if they stick with it."
Mike & Molly airs Mondays at 9/8c on CBS.
(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)