“Letting You Go”
April 28th, 2010
I am officially nearing the point with Cougar Town where I may make it my personal crusade to travel across the country in order to force every person who gave up on the show in its (admittedly pretty bad) early episodes to sit down and watch an episode like “Letting You Go.” As a show which seemed to begin with tired archetypes, I can see why people were perhaps impatient with the series, but these characters are real people now: while Modern Family has a set of dynamic character types that offer plenty of storytelling opportunities, characters on Cougar Town evolve and change in life the same way that J.D., Elliot and Turk changed through medicine.
“Letting You Go” is a careful negotiation of the show’s central relationships told through a combination of some bare bones emotional realities and some ridiculous, over-the-top sequences that would seem like dream sequences on any other show. That the show is capable of achieving this makes it all the more impressive, and makes me all the more sad that people who would truly love this show let it go before it really had a chance to shine.
At this point in the show’s production run it was clear that they were getting a second season (it was an early renewal), which meant that they knew they would have to deal with the “Travis goes to College” situation. Conveniently, with Scrubs ending, they’re going to have some spare college dorm sets kicking around, and when I saw the Winston University envelope (his safety school, and the school in Scrubs’ ninth season) I was expecting they’d just use the old campus as well, but either way you knew that Travis would end up in Florida. The question, though, is how the episode chooses to get there, and it really embodies everything the show has built to this point: Jules starts off overreacting to his failure, then overreacting to his success, and then very clearly pressuring him into staying close by. It’s obnoxious, and cruel, but part of Jules’ character is that she tends to be “all in,” and her overreaction comes from an honest place.
That’s where the show has made its major changes from the beginning: we understand why Jules is crazy about Travis going away to college because what she says to him about her loneliness after the divorce and how important he was to helping her through is all entirely true. Yes, it’s entirely cruel to throw this all on him, but Jules’ response is a slightly manic manifestation of how every parent responds in a situation like that. What makes it work is that they work all the way through it: Travis calls her on placing the weight of the world on his shoulders over the decision, Jules is forced to apologize, and Travis admits that as soon as he was accepted to the school twenty minutes down the road he knew it was going to be his decision. At the core of Jules’ behaviour is a relationship with her son that is not damaged, or even changed, by any of the overreactions and gamesmanship that often defines their interaction, and in a few scenes tonight that was rather effortlessly captured by Cox and Byrd.
The show makes an intelligent decision, then, to finally play the Jules/Grayson card amidst Jules’ realization that even though he’s only moving twenty minutes down the road their relationship will never be the same. It’s a complicated enough scenario, with Jules at her most vulnerable and Grayson at his most comforting, that it isn’t going to simply result in a relationship, but yet also rings emotionally true. Sure, I could have done without the little joke from Jules to break the tension of it all, but the show has done some fairly nuanced, if not particularly subtle, work with these two over the course of the season, and now that we’re twenty-one episodes into the year I think that it’s about time it happens. By placing it in the context of an episode where the two characters have a lot in common, both viewing each other as a way to contend with the loneliness which has either plagued them in the past or which they fear will plague them in the future, it rings true even if the episode wasn’t a big Jules/Grayson “Will They, Won’t They?” festival.
The Ellie/Andy story was treading on ground that the show has already handled before, and was largely just an excuse to let the cast go crazy with some Enya playing in the background, but I think the show deserves some credit for the Laurie storyline. Her relationship with Smith has always seemed a little bit out of character, at least as it’s continued: it started because he had both first and last names which could be either first or last names, but it continued because he was charming and kind and all of the things that Laurie doesn’t normally search for in a partner. So to have the show address that fact, and to have Laurie actually work through her relationship issues, is the sort of story that I don’t think I ever thought I’d see for the character. It’s no surprise, of course, that Busy Phillips is capable of handling both the ditzy comedy and the bits of drama within this storyline considering her great work on Freaks and Geeks, but it’s nice that the show is actually letting one of its supporting characters grow. I know the relationship isn’t likely to last (Devlin was case in the “Shit My Dad Says” pilot), but it’s done a lot to make Laurie a more believable human being, and that’s the bread and butter of the series at this point.
When I review Modern Family, I find myself discussing structures and storylines and basically trying to rewrite the show. With Cougar Town, I’m sort of just along for the ride: I could point out that Bobby giving Smith’s father golf lessons was a bit convenient, but then I’d get so distracted by the golf ball-retrieving Dog Travis interacting with Barry Bostwick that I’d be lost before I even got into my point. There is something about this show that is infectious, a spirit that manages to meld together the broad comedy and the emotional resonance into something that’s just really working well. I know how lame that sounds, and I’m sure that I might be alone in all of this, but “Letting You Go” is yet another episode of the show which tells me that while I may respect Modern Family, I am unabashedly a fan of Cougar Town.
- Seriously, Dog Travis is so damn genius I don’t entirely know where to begin. I’m open to a spin-off of Bobby and Dog Travis fighting crime, solving crime, or committing crime.
- I like when the show turns Jules’ neuroses around on her: the montage of her watching Travis sleep was all sorts of fun, but it might have remained entirely creepy were it not for Travis pulling the same stunt on her. The show’s characters don’t let Jules’ behaviour rule over them, and their willingness to call her on it (or throw it back at her) is one of the show’s greatest assets.
- Always enjoy the little connections ahead of the credits: the repetition of “there it is” nicely tied together storylines a few minutes apart, and the show seems to have a lot of “kick” heading into the credit sequence even when it’s not a traditional cold open structure.
- I think my relative lack of objectivity regarding his show is growing, so when it isn’t being quite as “important” with its storylines chances are I might just tweet about it rather than subject you to a list of things I found funny and a list of things I did not.