Just two seasons in, the CBS sitcom Mom has already tackled some not-immediately-funny issues, including alcoholism, gambling, homelessness, and cancer. Even star Anna Faris admits she was shocked when her character's teen daughter turned up pregnant in the second episode.
"I thought it was a joke," says the actress, who plays Christy, a young mother struggling with sobriety. "I couldn't believe that so early on we would go down that road. We put a lot of trust in our viewers."
Mom is that rarity: a primetime comedy that doesn't shy away from often dark subject matter. "This was an attempt to do something that was more personal and more fraught with danger," says cocreator and executive producer Chuck Lorre. "I didn't see any point in doing another sitcom and not expanding the language a little bit. It seemed to me that the genre doesn't really deal with reality."
It's not just comedy that has lost some reality over the years. In an era of superhero adaptations, antihero dramas, and postapocalyptic thrillers, Neal Baer, who has served as a writer and executive producer on NBC's ER and Law & Order: SVU, laments the days when TV tackled hot-button subjects such as gun control and abortion. "Hill Street Blues, ER, NYPD Blue — those were shows that grappled with tough issues," says Baer, who helped craft the 1996 ER storyline that featured one of TV's few major HIV-positive characters, Gloria Reuben's Jeanie Boulet.
"It would be so hard to do that now," Baer says. "We did an episode on SVU based on an article in Science magazine that showed kids who are exposed to gunfire are two to three times more likely to commit a violent act. We didn't just pontificate; we did both sides. We did a story about teen access to abortion. We did euthanasia, home schooling, vaccinations. Even teaching torture. Having that freedom was quite wonderful."
Baer believes the explosion of programming makes it tougher for mainstream primetime shows to address such themes today. With so many choices, he says, viewers are less willing to be challenged by uncomfortable storylines. If they tune out, advertisers won't pay networks as much to air their commercials. "[Back then] if viewers were not happy about programming, there was not much they could do," he says. "Now you don't want to chase off any viewers. Everyone is a bit controversy-averse. The democratization of television, in which people can give instantaneous feedback, has perhaps watered down the content."
Jeffrey P. Jones, Ph.D., director of the Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia, which honors programs with a socially conscious message, understands Baer's point of view but says storytellers must now address such topics in different ways. "Television has always feasted on social issues," says Jones, pointing out that, in recent years, The Good Wife featured storylines on Internet privacy and rape on college campuses, while Parenthood touched on breast cancer and adoption. Black-ish recently caused a minor stir with an episode about spanking, and Grey's Anatomy, which dealt with Cristina's choice to have an abortion in 2011, had a November story about a homeless veteran. Cable series like The Wire and Treme covered racial tensions and urban decline. Social issues are also addressed on streaming series like Transparent (which focuses on a man who is learning to live as a woman) and Orange Is the New Black (about incarceration).
"If you look across the different platforms, there are probably more issues being tackled," says ABC Family programming and development executive vice president Karey Burke. "But the big difference is that these days, there's not one show commanding a massive audience while tackling hundreds of subjects. Instead, there exist hundreds of smaller shows, each embracing one topic."
ABC Family offers a growing roster of socially conscious shows, including The Fosters, about a lesbian couple raising a blended family. "By definition, that family is going to wrestle with social issues," cocreator and executive producer Peter Paige says. "The whole show is structured by that idea."
Burke, who worked in development at NBC for more than a decade, then became a producer (Go On, Free Agents) before joining ABC Family this fall, also notes how traditional network television has moved away from those topics. "In my role [as a producer], when I would want to do a show tackling bigger issues, I did feel I was coming up against a bit of a brick wall and questions of commerciality," she says.
Burke says she was drawn to ABC Family because of shows like The Fosters and Chasing Life, about a young woman diagnosed with cancer. "They're tackling social issues in an incredibly entertaining way," she says, "and that's the goal for all of us, cable and broadcast. These shows aren't after-school specials. My great hope is, with [the millennial audience,] we'll usher in a new age of entertaining programming that has a social consciousness to it and is braver than what we've been tackling in the broader network world in the last decade."
Jones says audiences are now turned off by shows that in the past came off as preachy, "like The Facts of Life, Who's the Boss?, or ER, for that matter. [Issues are now presented in] a little more of a micro-message. It's more subtle." That sentiment holds true for Baer's most recent series, CBS's Under the Dome, a sci-fi thriller that is also a commentary on what might happen to democracy in the face of dwindling natural resources.
But Jones says it's tough to address certain subjects because TV is coming off the age of the antihero; there are fewer credible characters to shoulder the responsibility. "The heroes of old — politicians, journalists, police, schoolteachers — we don't hold them in high esteem like we once did," he says. It's still easier to address hot-button issues in legal and hospital dramas, where life-and-death stories are organic. Baer has two medical dramas in development that could do just that.
Of course, no one's calling for a return to the "very special" episodes of the 1980s and 1990s. "Oh, God, no," says Lorre. "When I first came up in television, back in the '80s, there was this knee-jerk need to want to teach. I think it's kind of condescending. It speaks to some idea that the writers and producers have wisdom to impart. Bulls--t. The primary reason to watch a half-hour comedy is to laugh. And if that can happen and the audience can find a way to care for these characters and see some kind of mirror to life, all the better."
This season on Mom, Faris's Christy leaves her family temporarily homeless as a result of her gambling addiction. "We lose our house, which is really surprising," she says. "In [sitcoms], traditionally the couch and the home are the center of the show. And just the idea that we were going to scrap that entire set and never go back, I was floored. Aren't we breaking 18 rules doing this?"
Costar Allison Janney says Lorre has directed them to be truthful. "He'll say, 'I'd rather you be real than funny,'" she says. "As an actress, I love all the colors we get to show. We deal with some sad, shocking things. But it's the best way to talk about any serious subject matter."
Mom has been compared by critics to producer Norman Lear's 1970s sitcoms, such as All in the Family, Good Times, and Maude, all of which reflected the issues of that era. "I thought this was a chance to go back to Lear's work," Lorre says. "I'm certainly not comparing the two, but he saw opportunity in telling stories about what was really happening in people's lives."
Coincidentally, Lear recently revealed that he and Sony Pictures Television are discussing an All in the Family revival for 2015. Lear says that, like the original, the reboot would be about "what you and your family and I and my family are living through. They're the same problems we had 30 years ago. They're just not being addressed as often."
Why does Lear think more shows don't touch the issues, as he did? "The answer lies in what the networks and other buyers insist on," Lear says. "They don't want the problems that the sponsors and executives at the networks didn't want all those years ago. There are writers everywhere who would be eager to write about everything they're facing." And actors eager to portray those stories. "The only way I have been able to get through the hard moments in my life is through humor," says Janney. "Why should that be different on a TV show?"