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Chuck Lorre's 'Mom' careful with finding humor in delicate topic

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Chuck Lorre has a new addition to his growing TV family: “Mom.”

The new CBS comedy (premiering 9:30 p.m. Sept. 23) from the executive producer of “Two and a Half Men,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Mike & Molly” follows Christy (Anna Faris), a single mother of two who is dealing with newfound sobriety and her difficult, recovering-alcoholic mother (Allison Janney).

Part of the mother-daughter relationship is universal, says Faris, whose films include the “Scary Movie” franchise and “The House Bunny.”

“There's this struggle between moms being incredibly supportive and also knowing your vulnerabilities. For instance, my mom is so supportive of me. She's amazing. But she'll also do things like, ‘Oh, so you're still biting your nails,' ” Faris says.

An addictive past combined with a couple of years of estrangement adds a twist to her TV “Mom,” she says. “I'm sure a lot of what they had in common for so long was probably drinking, drugging, men, all kinds of things in that world. Now, with Christy being sober and her mom being sober, I think they're attempting to have an entirely new relationship. I think Christy's trying a little harder, though.”

Lorre likes the idea of someone trying to change, a topic he explored to varying degrees in two earlier hits, “Grace Under Fire” and “Cybill.”

“I've always been enamored with that kind of character. I think it's very identifiable. It's something that feels close to me, starting over and not necessarily having the emotional tools to deal with life,” he says, noting that he's had his share of second chances.

Lorre realizes the underlying topic is delicate, especially for a comedy. (In the premiere episode, Christy speaks at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.)

“We're dancing around alcoholism and addiction, and it's not, by nature, funny. It's tragic, and it wrecks families, and it wrecks lives. ... When there are children involved and their well-being is at risk, you have to tread very carefully in terms of how you want to play this as a comedy,” he says. For that reason, Christy's “darkness is in her rear-view mirror. Her self-destructiveness has peaked. Now, she's in the process of restoring relationships and finding a way to live in the world where she can be at peace.”

That doesn't mean there isn't room for problems. As “Mom” opens, four-months-sober Christy is having an affair with Gabriel (Nate Corddry), the married manager of the fancy restaurant where she waits tables. And she's trying to navigate a difficult relationship with her 16-year-old daughter, Violet (Sadie Calvano), who gets along better with her grandmother.

Faris found Christy particularly appealing after playing some one-note characters in movies.

“I loved that she was flawed and trying and struggling and smart and funny, but also just a mess,” she says of the character.

Much of the initial excess comes courtesy of passive-aggressive Bonnie, who flirts shamelessly with a younger waiter and whose casual comment about Xanax calls into question the rigor of her own sobriety.

“She's complicated,” says Janney, a multiple Emmy winner for a much different role on NBC's “The West Wing.” “She's sort of blind to her own faults and thinks she's immensely helpful to her daughter and will make her life so much better with her presence. She's bawdy, she's a bit of a nymphomaniac. Mostly, she just drives Anna's character crazy.”

Lorre, who says there's no more heroic or formidable character than the single mother, says it's going to take time for the pair to get closer.

“There's a developing affection between the two of them that's tortured by past issues,” he says. “It's a difficult relationship. Mother-daughter relationships are fascinating to me.”

The cast includes French Stewart, Matt Jones, Blake Garrett Rosenthal and Spencer Daniels.

Faris and Janney say they are excited about the opportunity to work with Lorre, the current maestro of the multi-camera comedy filmed in front of a studio audience. (All four of his shows air on CBS.)

“He's visionary, and he's not afraid. We've had some story lines that I'm really surprised about,” Faris says. “When he gives a note, it will be a very small thing that will change everything and make the scene work.”

Janney is impressed that Lorre is taking on a topic as complicated as addiction.

“I think so far that it's been handled really well, and it's been very funny and poignant,” she says. “I prefer to deal with serious subject matters with comedy, because I think we have to laugh at ourselves.”

With four shows now in production (‘Mike & Molly' returns in midseason), Lorre doesn't worry that he could be spreading himself too thin. He credits strong writing staffs for most of the heavy lifting, which gives him the chance to explore new stories.

“If I have an opportunity to do something really cool, I want to do it. We'll figure out the logistics of it as we go. But to be able to tell stories on television like this and at this scale and at this level, I don't see why I'd want to pull back from that right now,” he says. “It's an extraordinary opportunity to play in these very different sandboxes. But at the same time, it's terrifying, it's ridiculous, it's stupid. I'm loving it.”

Bill Keveney is a staff writer for USA Today.

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