No. 5: Cougar Town
Like Scrubs but without a moral centre.
Listen, I am absolutely not judging you if you don’t watch Cougar Town. First, it is called Cougar Town, which is possibly one of the worst and most misleading show titles in television history. Now, part of that is because it isn’t actually about a large cat murdering people in a small, wealthy suburb, though if there is any justice in this world that will be a part of an upcoming episode of Suburgatory. Neither is it about a high school football team whose mascot is a cougar, even though that is the opening shot of the series.
However, the biggest reason why Cougar Town is a misleading title is because since about a quarter of the way through the first season, it has no longer been about its original premise, the one you almost certainly think the show is still actually about. I will repeat, for clarity:
Cougar Town is not about Courteney Cox fucking younger men.
I can absolutely understand why you might think that. I watched the first couple of episodes when they aired because I have been a big fan of co-creator Bill Lawrence since he co-created Spin City in 1996, becoming more completely devoted to his work with Scrubs and Clone High. I have loved the man’s work for over half my life – especially if you consider his writing roles on Friends and Boy Meets World. When there is a new Bill Lawrence show, I just mentally assign that timeslot every week as UNAVAILABLE because the man knows what I like. And so, on September 23, 2009, I turned on Cougar Town and, for maybe the first time in my following of Lawrence’s career… wasn’t blown away. I watched the next week, too. For the next year, I didn’t.
Looking back, there was a lot to like even in those first two episodes. Some good jokes. That familiar sense of fun and wackiness. A frankly brilliant cast. What it came down to was that at the end of that half hour, I just didn’t really want to watch a show about Courteney Cox hooking up with younger men. I didn’t think it was a concept that was either entertaining or tenable in the long term. And it wasn’t, though not in the way you might think.
Sometime during the second season, I was spending time with my friend Taylor (co-creator of our eventually upcoming sitcom Miracles, about Jesus returning as the owner of and short order cook for the titular greasy spoon diner in the desert) at our neighourhood pub, talking about TV shows we loved and making plans. Wednesdays were out, he said. That was Cougar Town night. I immediately called him on his bullshit.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he told me, laughing. “It’s not that show anymore. Halfway through the first season it changed and now it’s awesome.”
He explained going through the same experience as me – he was a fellow Scrubs fan from back in its early days – except that he checked back later in the season and loved what he saw. We talked for a few more minutes about it and I told him I’d check it out. The next week, I watched the season’s tenth episode, “The Same Old You,” and fell in love. I didn’t miss an episode for the rest of the season. Taylor was right; it wasn’t about its original concept anymore; it was about this group of neighbours, their bonds and the genuinely awful things they say and do to each other. When it wasn’t on ABC’s fall schedule – or its midseason one – I started to antsy that the series might not come back anytime soon. When its third season order got cut to 15 episodes, I got especially worried. Eventually, it got its premiere date of February 14th, 2011 and I set about catching up. I purchased the series’ two seasons on iTunes and hit play on a Friday night. By that same time two days later on Sunday, I had watched 32 episodes. This weekend, I finished the second season. Today, I’d like to tell you that Cougar Town is absolutely a show that you need to be watching.
The First Thing You Need To Know is that the producers and writers know the title isn’t great. In fact, the second season title cards riffed on this, with subtitles like “It’s Okay to Watch a Show Called” and “We Pretend it’s Called ‘Wine Time.’” To someone who was put off by the show’s original premise and cautiously returning, it told me that the crew knew and were working to get past it.
The Second Thing You Need To Know is, as I’ve said before, that the series isn’t about what you think it is. Watching through the first season in a frenzy a week ago, I pinpointed the exact point at which the change started happening, the point at which the show left the alright-show-with-some-great-jokes behind and started becoming incredible. The first season’s seventh episode, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” works off an interesting premise: Jules (Cox) is called out by her neighbour Grayson (Josh Hopkins, playing the gender-flipped equivalent of Jules who sleeps with younger women but isn’t embarrassed by it) on her need to never be alone and makes a bet that she can’t spend the entire day alone. Of course she fails because of course she fails. Hell, she doesn’t just do so mildly and have someone over for coffee, she accidentally throws a neighbourhood barbecue. This, you discover as the show transforms, is classic Jules. The episode ends with Jules eventually convincing Grayson to join the barbecue and finally admit that he’s become a part of this circle of friends, the ridiculously and hilariously-named Cul-de-Sac Crew. Much to his chagrin, he gives in and the series changed forever.
From this point on, the series was about something else entirely and it seems obvious that it was around that time that the producers and writers likely discovered that even if the original premise wasn’t quite clicking, what was succeeding was the part of the show that was about the bizarre, incredibly close relationships between the characters. It had been slowly slipping that way beforehand because hey, you go with what works, but with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” it feels like that’s when it became codified. By the ninth episode, the Thanksgiving-centred “Here Comes My Girl,” the transformation was complete. At this point, the series is completely about this group of neighbours and their relationships. A big part of the episode is Jules’ son Travis (Dan Byrd) introducing his girlfriend to this ersatz family as an outsider. Everybody else is already part of this immutable whole.
Towards the end of the first season, the show finally pairs up Jules and Grayson as part of what became the season’s arc and the final transformation from the show’s original premise. Courteney Cox fucking younger men didn’t work, but what does is Courteney Cox in a relationship. There are only so many things about her that can get revealed with Jules dating younger men for an episode or two at a time, but with the Jules-Grayson relationship and the Cul-de-Sac Crew relationships, the series has blossomed. I’ve learned so much more about her and Grayson since they began the process of baring themselves to each other, and the second season was so wonderfully cohesive and more consistently entertaining than almost any other show on television.
All this lets the show live or die on the strength of its cast and their characters, not a scary premise or misleading title, and the resulting show revels in what is one of the best ensemble casts around with a stunning level of chemistry. I’ve known Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, Ian Gomez and Cox (obviously) through their work for years, but all four of them are doing the best work of their careers. Dare I say it, but I like Cougar Town’s Courteney Cox even more than Friends-era Courteney Cox, and I say that as someone who still watches Friends most nights of the week almost a decade after it ended. Brian Van Holt, Hopkins and Byrd are wonderful discoveries.
I am not atypical of the show’s intensely loyal fanbase. Before the series’ return date was announced, creators Lawrence and Kevin Biegel decided to harness and maintain this dedication by doing a series of cross-America episode screenings and cast-and-crew meet and greets, completely out of their own pocket. One of my friends got to attend the one held at the show’s Culver City studios and I am extraordinarily jealous. Personally, I like to think that it was that kind of fan (and creator) dedication that helped the series get its return date. Regardless, it’s hard to deny that it helped keep the show in the minds of the public and raise excitement for its eventual return. If absolutely nothing else, it got a whole lot of Cougar Town fans excitedly talking about the show again and recommending it to all of their friends.
So here I go, again:
Cougar Town is unmistakably a Bill Lawrence show. If you liked Scrubs or Spin City, you will enjoy this. It’s got the same wit and the same wackiness. Instead of Scrubs’ surreal humour and fantasies, that part of it gets expressed through the characters’ own actions. Instead of having a fantasy about doing or saying something horrible, these best friends will do and say them. Probably to each other, and then they’ll come right back and love each other so fiercely it catches your breath. Take away the episode-closing voiceover about morals and amp up Doctor Cox and Jordan (also played by the sublime Christa Miller), and a line from Lawrence’s last show to Cougar Town makes itself clear. Except get this: it’s better.
I know, I know. I have been a devoted Scrubs fan since the night it premiered. It was and still is one of my favourite shows. That’s why I am so excited to say that after a rough start, Cougar Town is the best work of Lawrence’s career. He, Biegel and their writers are telling refined, funny and heartfelt stories about a period of life that is so often presented as, well, what people think the show is because of its first episodes. The characters of Travis and Laurie let them tell the kinds of stories about growing up that Scrubs did, but with the rest they tell stories about being an adult and how you can still change and surprise yourself instead of just being a punchline. It takes the things that were incredible about Spin City and Scrubs and uses them as stepping stones to a different kind of story.
And it’s funny. Unbelievably so. It can oscillate between wordplay, misanthropy and all caps FUN with ease. After two seasons, it’s created its own lexicon and running gags but is still easy to jump in onboard. It surprises me and it makes me laugh more than almost any other show on television. Only Community does it as often.
When it returns on February 14th, Cougar Town will be the funniest show currently airing on television. Don’t miss it. It’s not about what you think it is; it’s so very much better.