September 23rd, 2009
Pilot season is really kind of an awkward time, when you think about it. If you’re going to be a “breakthrough” show (like Modern Family, which aired before Cougar Town), you need to move outside the bounds of the traditional pilot to surprise and excite. However, part of the nature of a pilot is tempering expectation, creating a template for your series which won’t always be smooth and which in some instances might not even be that compelling. It’s an episode where you open the episode with a conceptual scene that establishes your premise set to a hip indie music selection, and the result can often be a sense that this is “just another pilot.”
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Yes, Modern Family deserves its accolades, but Cougar Town is a solid if unspectacular pilot for a show that has amassed a pretty impressive supporting cast, a fantastic lead actress, and sets up a premise which could on the surface result in diminishing returns and yet could just as easily turn into a really engaging premise for a sitcom. It is certainly not subtle, but with Bill Lawrence behind the scenes and some elements of interest I’m definitely willing to stick around Cougar Town for a while.
Just to be entirely clear, if the show was about cougars I don’t think I’d be watching, but one thing the pilot establishes is that cougars are not someone to be proud of or even someone the show is willing to follow. Jules (Courteney Cox) is an older woman who is lonely, who chooses to enjoy Wine and Scrabble nights (often without the Scrabble, mind you) with her neighbour (Christa Miller, wife of co-creator Bill Lawrence) instead of going out and re-entering the dating pool. Her teenage son, once her excuse, is enjoying life with his friends and no longer hanging around home, which leaves Jules at that stage of effectively treading water. It’s at that point that her co-worker (Busy Phillips) puts up a selection of sexy real estate signs featuring Jules’ image, and it’s at that point that Jules is dragged to a bar and later has an attractive young man delivered to her doorstep.
The show, on some level, is about Jules having sex with younger men, but it never seems to feel as if it is about her becoming (or wanting to be) a cougar. When we learn at episode’s end that rather than wallowing in self-pity she’s hooking up with the same kid from the bar, I see this less as a sign that she’s “becoming one of them” than a sign that she’s throwing away concepts of public perception and just enjoying herself in a way she hadn’t before. Yes, there’s some traditional awkward humour as she “becomes” a cougar in those first scenes (the reaching around for the light switch, her amazement at his stamina, etc.), but the result isn’t a transformation of her character into someone else entirely. Rather, it’s a frustration that her public persona is being turned into a sexual one, and that her efforts to reconnect with a side of herself she thought was dormant has become a social stigma (that she herself is less than impressed by, especially when seen in the reverse with her neighbour’s sorority girl parade).
And I think I kind of like that show, if you take all of her individual relationships as separate from the show’s title (which, after all, is actually about the high school mascot and not the town’s high population of horny older women). I like Dan Byrd as her teenage son, and the idea of him being tormented by both of his parents’ public personas (his mother and her signs, his father (Brian Van Holt) and his shirtless lawnmowing at his school) has some real comic potential. Similarly, the dynamic between Cox, Miller and Phillips allows each to play the right role in a sort of friend triangle (Miller as the cynical married woman and Phillips as the fun-loving party girl, demonstrating the fight for Jules’ soul to some degree), and I think there’s some potential there. Combine with Josh Hopkins’ Grayson as a sort of male equivalent Jules, a rival who’s out to prove her wrong, and there’s plenty of material here to gradually develop into a show that is less about sexual conquests and more about why they happen and their impact on the rest of her life.
The show isn’t going to be high art anytime soon, but I think that beyond a pilot that occasionally tries too hard there are some elements here that could turn into what the show really aspires to be: a solid sitcom.
- The show is clearly moving towards putting Jules and Grayson together into a sexual scenario – Hopkins and Cox have something approaching chemistry, and I particularly enjoyed Grayson’s footed pyjamas gag. It’s a fun dynamic, and one I’m interested to see more of.
- Okay, let’s discuss: I know that it was necessary to get across the point, and it ended up turning into a fun marketing campaign, but the “teenager steals all the signs as pleasure material” makes no sense in an age of the internet. Plus, wouldn’t his mother have freaked out to find all of those signs in his room? That’s not normal behaviour, period.
- I’ve seen some people critical of the fact that the first scene takes a very attractive and ultimately thin/in-shape Cox and pretends (although it was her body) that she is in some way past her prime. I think the scene gets its point across well enough for the cheat (putting no make up on her, etc.) to be worthwhile, although the show does need to evolve past such blatant theatrics (or, in that instance, a theatrical lack of theatrics).
- I asked on Twitter about alternate (and better) titles for the show, and Matt Elliott wins for “Old Friends.”