May 19th, 2010
Jules Cobb loves plans. She makes the argument in “Finding Out” that plans make everything better, an argument which is proven correct as an elaborate plan at the end of Cougar Town’s first season finale ends up working just as she and Grayson had predicted.
Of course, the irony is that Cougar Town is a show which threw out its plan early on in its first season – I’ve written enough about the show’s transformation to not necessarily feel like going over it again (Todd VanDerWerff’s review of the finale nicely captures it, also), but suffice to say that the show is completely different now than it was when it started. However, rather than one plan being replaced by another, the show has largely gone without a plan: sure, Jules and Grayson eventually got together as the show seemed to be gesturing towards, but each episode doesn’t feel like it’s playing into a particular formula, or that it’s forcing characters into particular moulds. Rather, each episode seems like it stems from characters hanging out, or characters dealing with facts of life, or characters just acting like human beings and following their whims.
“Finding Out” has all of the show’s characters struggling to figure out how to manage what is unquestionable a “plot development” which threatens to undermine the show’s sense of laidback stability, and Grayson does come up with a plan that allows them to micro-manage the situation to their benefit. However, the way that plan plays out within the show itself is so wonderfully handled (and the rest of the episode around it so gosh darn fun) that the balance never wavers, and the show handles its transition into a new era and into a second season with the same confidence that it has showed in recent episodes.
In other words, there’s no better time than the present to get caught up for September.
We could spend a lot of time talking about the small pleasures of “Finding Out,” like the out of context answers to questions about Bobby which Andy provides during Ultimate Penny Can, or Jules’ “He wants to make love to an EWOKKKK” tantrum during Ultimate Penny Can, or really just about anything relating to Ultimate Penny Can, but I want to focus on the two big decisions that this particular episode made.
The first is the decision to focus on Bobby without necessarily focusing on Bobby – the ways in which Brian Van Holt and the writers have managed to maintain Bobby’s stupidity while making the character infinitely endearing is truly a masterwork of television comedy, and it’s fitting that the finale would focus on the character’s emotions so heavily. There are still plenty of Bobby moments, like his inability to understand his boats lack of cold storage or his inability to stop being a third wheel even after becoming self-aware of his position as a third wheel (even to Dog Travis), but there’s a sort of sadness which pervades his existence. As soon as Jules and Grayson got together, my mind went exactly where all of the characters collectively went after everyone else learned of their new relationship, and the show was smart to ease its way into Bobby’s response. The show has a great deal of respect for its characters, Bobby in particular, so the show chooses to avoid the drama of the situation and stick to comedy and sentiment.
The result is predictable but in an effective fashion: as soon as we learn they’re going to the beach, we think back to the news about Bobby’s most recent favourite beach activity, and coupled with his attempts to run away from divorce papers (and Jules tackling him with the help of an ATV) it seemed logical that they would tell him when he was buried in the sand and not able to run. However, as noted, the plan is elegant without feeling contrived, and because it comes from Grayson (as opposed to something which just sort of happens) and because it is well-intentioned, it all fits in nicely with the laidback beach party vibe of the final scenes. The show has worked hard all season to emphasize the camaraderie of this particular group of friends, so to bring everyone to the beach as “individuals” and without the labels of couples really brought out the qualities of the show which work so well along with working nicely to break the news to Bobby. His reaction is logical while leaving plenty of room for comic material next season, a human response to a human situation that still feels quintessentially “Bobby.”
The other major decision in the episode probably doesn’t seem very major, but I thought the pairing of Travis and Laurie was just really great stuff. Laurie and Travis are the two characters who aren’t reaching middle age, and so they can sometimes feel like they can’t relate to the central stories (especially since Laurie has such a prickly relationship with Ellie). However, Smith has gone a long way to bringing Laurie into adulthood, and Travis’ relationship with Kylie gives him a point of comparison with the ridiculous women in his life. The idea of Laurie and Travis as observers throughout the episode’s relationship conflicts played really well for me, as Busy Phillips destroyed with her Devil Face demonstration and Travis’ development of a defense mechanism paid off well. Phillips and Dan Byrd don’t necessarily get “major” storylines on the show, but it was great to see the two characters highlighted in the finale alongside Bobby, who would probably be the show’s other VIP. It’s something that Modern Family was unwilling to do in their own finale, which focused too heavily on “lead” characters and underused its supporting stars.
The show is just in a really comfortable place right now, and it knows what it can pull off: it knows that it can do a techno remix of Grayson’s phone message and that it will go over like gangbusters, and it knows that it can get away with putting Smith and Kylie into the final montage without any concerns over whether they’ll fit in. When you start thinking about Season Two storylines, there are some obvious choices: Travis off at college means there’s room for an antagonistic professor or an obnoxious classmate, while Bobby as the only single person in the group means that potential love interests are probably on the horizon (we already had Lisa Kudrow, let’s remember). And while I could be concerned about how this will all work, the show is on such solid footing right now that I’m convinced they could introduce Poochie and get away with it.
It’s a show that is willing to pay off small jokes: Baby Stan saying Bobby is revealed to have been a master plan, Travis’ concern over his skinny arms leads to him lifting weights, Grayson’s hipster hats become an opportunity for the entire group to get in on the joke, and Jules’ joke suggestion about the 1 Millionth Customer confetti shower comes true in the coda. It’s like the show doesn’t waste a single joke, or more accurately it feels like the show is filled with characters unwilling to waste a single joke. And yet they still have time to stop being funny, to realize when something needs to be handled more seriously and when a comforting glimpse of people hanging out happily is just what we need to carry us over into the fall.
I don’t think it’s possible to stress how much I recommend that people give the show a chance over the summer: it’s the perfect summer show, as the episodes run at a brisk pace and it has that laidback feel which works well in the most leisurely of seasons. Going through the early episodes may end up being a bit of a chore, but the show got good enough at the end that I would without reservation recommend the show to every single potential viewer out there, and I can only hope that the show keeping its Modern Family lead-in in the fall is a sign that ABC feels the same way.
- My one disappointment with the episode: no live appearance by Dog Travis. A picture just isn’t enough, and his absence at the beach was a sad blight on an otherwise fantastic finale.
- Considering that Ryan Devlin is getting cut from CBS’ newly picked up “Shit My Dad Says” sitcom, I wonder if Bill Lawrence has the financial leeway to be able to hire him on as a regular here: the show seemed really comfortable with Smith sticking around for the finale, so it would seem strange if he’s written out considering that Devlin has no other job to go to anymore. Kylie is expendable (necessary at the beach for Travis’ defence mechanism to be put into motion), but Smith has really humanized Laurie, and I think there’s enough dimension in their relationship for them to stay together and still be funny.
- I like how quickly the show dispelled any sense that Travis would find Grayson and Jules’ relationship awkward – the “New Dad” bit was short, funny, and nicely captured how the relationship won’t change Travis and Jules’ relationship (which has been focused on in recent episodes).
- I liked how Jules and Grayson’s plan ended up failing, as their little kiss reveals their relationship before they get a chance to break the news gently, and yet it still goes off fine – no plan should ever work “perfectly,” but if it’s well-designed it will get through no matter the bumps along the road, not unlike the show’s current laidback strategy.