"Mike & Molly," which premieres Monday on CBS, is a situation comedy about fat people in love, or will be, as soon as the leads have the time to get together. Fat people. In love. This is the Big Idea that animates this show, which under that padding plays most profitably as a simple, sweet romance between a pair of shy Chicagoans. Billy Gardell plays police officer Mike, Melissa McCarthy fourth-grade teacher Molly and, as is the custom in these things, they come packing comic foils: his mouthy friend and partner (Reno Wilson); her skinny mother ( Swoosie Kurtz, not breaking a sweat) and a sister ( Katy Mixon ) who is a — how shall I put this? — stoner slut.
Although We the People as a people are getting to where 200 pounds is the new 165, the large are still considered marginal on television. With a few rule-proving exceptions, they are relegated to secondary roles and character parts (or are marveled at in reality shows). They carry water for the svelte. "Mike & Molly" does remedy that: There hasn't been a leading couple on TV this heavy since Roseanne Barr and John Goodman, and before them there was … nobody.
On "Roseanne," weight was just part of the package and only rarely referred to. Size, on the other hand, is very much at the center of "Mike and Molly." We first see Mike about to eat a single, unadorned, bunless hot dog, to the dismay of the Senegalese immigrant (Nyambi Nyambi) who runs the well-realized diner where Mike and his partner hang out. ("May I suggest you move to my country, where everybody is fashionably thin due to lack of food?") Molly we meet puffing along on an exercise machine — "I burned off my, uh, 12 calories" — while her mother and sister eat cake.
Created by Mark Roberts, with Chuck Lorre ( "The Big Bang Theory") as an executive producer, and "Mr. Sitcom" James Burrows (ubiquitous, if not omnipresent) directing the pilot, it has the two-jokes-a-minute rhythm of multi-camera comedy, which means almost necessarily that you will get your fill of fat jokes. When they aren't about fat, or food, they're mostly about sex and how little of it you can expect to get when you're heavy — and, in Mike's case, an amateur ichthyologist to boot. His idea of a good first date is a trip to the aquarium, and why that should be thought unappealing I do not know.
Many of those gags are mechanical and flat, although they are delivered as though they were not. But when the leads are focused on each other, size no longer matters and the show flickers to life. (In love, one might say, one size fits all.)
Gardell and McCarthy are appealing (and attractive) leads, and their reticent romance makes a refreshing change from the race to the bedroom that describes much of what passes on television for courtship. (Lorre's "Big Bang" worked similar beats, from a different angle.) McCarthy, so wonderful in "Samantha Who?" and "Gilmore Girls," is especially good; less eccentric (and more central) here than in previous roles, she consistently comes across as real in this most theatrical of television formats.
There is potentially a fine show here, struggling to be free of its fat suit.