A Pratfall Too Far

Mike & Molly started with promise, settled into comfortable, and descended into being nearly unwatchable by making Molly, once a dedicated fourth grade teacher, into a careening mess. The retooled sitcom manages to tarnish the legacy of enduring talents such as Lucille Ball as well as adding to the public discourse maligning teachers and the unions representing them.

Sitcoms, as one of the oldest and most popular forms of television programming, have a long history of social relevancy and of telling us cultural truths about who we are and who we want to be. The best shows of the genre have always tapped into conscious and unconscious desires defining the time.

In the era of I Love Lucy, for example, Lucille Ball was a visionary businesswoman in crafting the series and the merchandizing surrounding it while her alter-ego on the small screen, Lucy Ricardo, hatched scheme after scheme to escape the boredom of domesticity. This being the 1950s with limited options for real women, Lucy was never allowed to succeed, but the dramatic tension and subversion of the show resides in the fact that she did not stop trying.

When Mike & Molly premiered in 2010, the show felt subversive on the face of it because the sitcom features a large, professional woman finding romance, including a robust sex life. How often does that happen on TV? Sure, the rotund male lead is commonplace but typically cast alongside a svelte partner. Not since Roseanne has network television featured such a character as Molly Flynn.

It appears that the series, with a new showrunner this season, is poised to capitalize on the popularity of the actress playing Molly, Mellissa McCarthy. McCarthy has made a name for herself in films such as Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, and The Heat, in which she is accomplished at playing crass characters who engage in broad, physical comedy.

While her talent is undeniable, there is a larger cultural cost to importing McCarthy's movie persona into the small screen and dislodging a character who has served as a role model on at least two scores: a large woman who finds love and makes jokes but doesn't serve as the butt of them, and a dedicated teacher who loves her job despite the comparatively low pay and "homework" of grading papers.

Until the last decade or so, television was filled with iconic teacher characters reflecting an earlier esteem for the profession and recognition of its value. These depictions were not just in progressive dramas from Room 222 to Boston Public. Sitcoms were populated with upstanding and dedicated teachers like Connie Brooks in Our Miss Brooks, Gabe Kotter in Welcome Back, Kotter, and Mark Cooper in Hangin' With Mr. Cooper.

While Molly's days teaching at the fictional Walter Peyton Elementary School in Chicago have not featured prominently in the series (and the relative lack of diversity in a classroom of students who rarely speak is noticeable), references to her job and grading papers and related activities have been part of the fabric of the series and defining elements of the character. When Molly meets her true love Mike at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, the pairing of teacher and Chicago cop seems fitting.

Things started going haywire a few weeks ago. The fourth season premiere opened with Molly delivering a monologue in her classroom. She tells the still and silent children that they are about to take the Standardized Citywide Academic Review, a test the Chicago Board of Education "in its infinite wisdom has dubbed the SCAR."

She tells the upturned faces that this is the first of many tests that will determine whether they win or lose at life but not really because she "crushed" that test at their age and every other test put before her -- ACT, SAT, GRE - but only has S-Q-U-A-T to show for it. After all, she tells them, she drives a beat up old car, lives in her mom's basement, and is suffocating under a mountain of debt.

The laugh track goes crazy as Molly tells the fourth-graders that some mornings she doesn't want to get up, that she's in a rut, and she wonders if this is what she's going to keep doing unless she has the courage to change.

"You guys only have fourth grade once. I have all this for thirty more years." Really? After ten years in the classroom and no evidence before of dissatisfaction, this abrupt transition is plausible?

Molly strides across her classroom and begins to shove things off a counter in front of the classroom window. "Listen up, this might be the best lesson I ever teach you. Okay, don't settle, follow your dreams wherever they may take you." She opens the window, hoists herself onto the sill, and hurls her body onto the ground outside the classroom.

Still, the children remain seated at their desks. When her head pops up and asks one of them to get her purse, the student is silently compliant. Are they, too, in on the larger presumption that no one wants to be there because schools are broken and the work that takes place there is not valued?

In a later scene, Molly meets with her union representative; the assumption being that unions are a large part of what ails public education. Apparently, the particulars do not matter.

The character supports those assumptions when he says to Molly, "Don't worry. I've been a union rep for years. I've gotten teachers off for doing a whole lot worse than what you did." She asks, "Oh, really?" He replies, "Oh, yes. Horrible, horrible things. Keep you up at night. And, they're still teaching the little ones." The laugh track roars.

Incompetence and/or malice, especially at administrative levels, have always been elements explored in media representations of teachers, but there is generally a counterbalance. Mr. Woodman is contrasted with Mr. Kotter, for example, in Welcome Back, Kotter. The sweeping assumptions in Molly's transition reflect a prevailing sense in some quarters that public education is so far gone that there is no defense for it.

Presumably, Molly is at this meeting with her union representative because she wants to keep her job, especially the benefits. When her union rep describes her as a model teacher for ten years with "low pay and even less respect" and talks about how she has "given up her dreams to give the children of Chicago theirs," she bolts from the room.

What do Molly's big dreams turn out to be? So far, musical theater and writing fiction. Whatever will get a laugh and set up a scenario for another pratfall is likely awaiting Molly and whomever decides to continue to tune in to Mike & Molly.

It seems, however, that the tumble out of the classroom window is a pratfall too far for the series. No longer the steadfast character anchored by her equally dependable mate and surrounded by a cast of off-kilter family members and friends, the scenario has been inverted. Molly is lurching madly from one fancy to another while everyone around her has moderated.

There are two significant losses with the new version of Mike & Molly. The competent everywoman has become the crazy fat woman. We've seen too much of the latter and too little of the former in large women on television. And, teachers, unions, and public education have been sacrificed for a few not very funny jokes. Neither is acceptable, but the loss is especially dire for public education. One step to improving public education is to recognize its value and the professionalism of teachers, and portrayals such as this one undercut the possibility.

Mary M. Dalton, professor of communication at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Laura R. Linder, associate professor of communication at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., are co-authors of "Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television."