Cougar Town – “Rhino Skin”

“Rhino Skin”

January 6th, 2010

I think a lot of people have chosen to judge Cougar Town entirely based on Courteney Cox’s performance as Jules, which was perhaps fair early in the season – the show was about Jules dating younger men, which was a premise with very little room for growth for both the show and Jules as a character. And yet, something has happened over time that has evolved the show into something very different, a show with a fairly deep ensemble that isn’t afraid of mixing them up to create different pairings.

In other words, Cougar Town has become a show about a community, a group of characters who are capable of interacting with one another in social situations without things seeming chaotic or dramatic. While Grayson was once an antagonistic neighbour, he has become a reluctant participant in more age-appropriate social interactions, and while Bobby was once a deadbeat ex-husband he’s become someone who Jules cares about despite his use of a fish tank as a boat toilet. Ellie and Laurie were once actively antagonistic of one another, but they’ve now come to unite as Jules’ friends even if they maintain a six-foot distance between them when she’s not around.

And while some could argue that this is contrived, it’s given the show a sense of effortlessness with its story lines: it doesn’t feel like a stretch for new characters to interact with one another, and even if it makes for a definitively “small world” it’s one that has been effective both at delivering some strong comedy and, perhaps more importantly, accommodating guest stars like Scott Foley and Lisa Kudrow without feeling as if the show is changing in the process.

Cougar Town is simply a place I want to visit now, and I’m really enjoying what Bill Lawrence and company are offering.

The opening scene of the episode can’t happen on some other shows: the gang sitting at a restaurant, enjoying some drinks and discussing issues of love and relationships. It’s a scene not dissimilar from what Scrubs used to do in early seasons, putting Turk, Carla, J.D. and Elliot in a roow (most often the guys’ apartment) and having them have discussions and interactions which would lead into the episode. Scrubs, at its best, had a certain flow to it, capable of moving from story to story without feeling as if the show was abandoning one story to visit another. It helped that the show was set in a hospital, which offers a clear reason for stories to be connected, but the idea of recreating that elsewhere is something that Lawrence is obviously attracted to.

And so Cougar Town has become perhaps inexplicably small, as Grayson’s bar has become a new hangout and Jules and Ellie’s dermatologist just happens to be dating Bobby, and Travis just happens to get wrapped up in Andy’s advice about women as opposed to spending time with his girlfriend. Characters like Travis and Foley’s Jeff seem to get caught up in the whirlwind more than driving the story, but they easily integrate into each scenario, and watching as Andy’s rules of dealing with women start interacting with the episode’s other storylines shows how well everything flows together when the show tests how far it can limit the scale and scope of this universe for the sake of comic execution.

The show didn’t really do anything in its individual stories to really blow me away: Laurie’s seduction at the hands of Veronica Mars’ rapist had some fun moments with Grayson and Laurie’s interactions (again the show tries out new combos with some success), I thought Kudrow’s criticism of Jules demonstrates that the show is more interested in deriving humour from how annoying she is rather than her being annoying, and the show never felt weighed down by the “Friends Reunion” madness that preceded the episode in promos (of which I saw an unusually high amount just by watching Better Off Ted live on Tuesday night). There were a lot of balls in the air here, and yet the show managed to make Jules’ relationship with Jeff (through the concerns about appearing dumb which were exacerbated by Kudrow’s hyper-intelligence) part of a story that never felt “about” that relationship. It managed to accomplish a lot without feeling like it was forcing things, which is what Lawrence is striving for.

I think some people like to believe that Cox is a “scene stealer” in the way that J.D. became during Scrubs’ worst seasons, but the show has expanded so far beyond Jules that I don’t see how this argument could be made unless the people watching are letting early episodes colour their reading of these newer installments. The show doesn’t have a breakout character, but it’s the one new sitcom this year which seems focused first and foremost on creating a community of people we want to spend time with.

And I’d argue it’s succeeded in that respect in recent episodes, and am looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

Cultural Observations

  • I know it wasn’t intended as as much of a meta joke as it came across to me, but having Christa Miller attend a Botox clinic made me laugh.
  • Having only recently really dug into Freaks and Geeks, I know that Busy Phillips is capable of handling more depth in her storylines, but I do think that she’s having some fun with Laurie and I like the character a lot more now than when the show started. “Do you guys read Cathy?” slayed me for some reason.
  • I complain a lot about Modern Family’s morals, but I think it’s because they try to do too much: Andy’s convenient soundbytes that tie every character together here were both tongue-in-cheek (as part of his speech to Travis), and also actually felt cohesive since we’d seen them all interact with Andy’s lessons in some capacity.

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