By Ken Tucker
Updated September 26, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

Before Melissa McCarthy won an Emmy for her performance in it, Mike & Molly was known primarily as the third hit show producer Chuck Lorre had running on CBS. Last September, McCarthy was still known primarily to most of us as Gilmore Girls‘ Sookie, and co-star Billy Gardell had been a funny stand-up comic. Now, however, after her break-out film performance in Bridesmaids and copping a surprise Emmy, McCarthy is looking like a big fish in a small, slightly fetid sitcom pond.

If you interpreted that last line as a fat joke, (a) I didn’t mean it that way when I typed it, and (b) now that I’ve done it, I’m standing by it: it fits right in with the tone of Mike & Molly, which is all about making fat jokes both pointed and defused of contempt or condescension. When Molly, her mother (Swoosie Kurtz), and her sister (Katy Mixon) all made jokes in Monday night’s season premiere about Molly eating pancakes and hot dogs as a way of burying her sorrow over a fight she’d had with Mike, the punchlines were not politically-incorrect-offensive. Indeed, at least one was rooted in history. When Mom asked Molly whether she was going to eat herself into “no self-esteem and no elbows, either,” McCarthy paused. “Well?” said Mom. “I’m thinking about it!” snapped McCarthy, and I’m sure the writers knew they were paraphrasing one of the best-known punchlines in all of comedy: Look up your Jack Benny, kids.

The entire half-hour of M&M was just pleasantly silly, and it sped right along, thanks to the direction of one of the greatest TV directors of all time, James Burrows, who does that regularly for M&M. Like the Lorre hit that precedes it, Two and a Half Men, M&M is front-loaded with sex jokes (“You, sir, are an inspiration to overweight masturbators everywhere”); unlike TAAHM, M&M has a light sweetness to it, a genuine affection between its two main characters, that lifts you over and past the reflexive crudity.

All of which is not to say that Mike & Molly was really Emmy-worthy — not when the competition included characters as vivid as Parks and Recreation‘s Leslie Knope or even Raising Hope‘s Virginia Chance. However, McCarthy’s performance in M&M is certainly charming, and she really knows how to put a good spin on even the most bum line. If her role doesn’t begin to suggest the kind of comic aggressiveness she displays in Bridesmaids, well, network sitcoms are all about characters you can spend months and years with, not explosive anarchists like the one she plays in that movie.

At this point in her career, M&M may still what Melissa McCarthy needs to keep building a fan-base; whether she and other Bridesmaid TV- stars, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph (I’m not counting the talented Ellie Kemper simply because she was doing a fine variation on her Office character), begin to see weekly TV work as a hindrance to budding movie careers is another question.

Maybe you’re more of a Mike & Molly fan than I am; if so, let me know whether you think the season premiere served McCarthy well.

Twitter: @kentucker