“Keeping Me Alive”
October 20th, 2010
At this point, Cougar Town is sort of like a history lesson.
This isn’t to say that I had forgotten that Jules and Bobby were once married, and that the former has been paying alimony to the latter, but it hasn’t played a role in the show’s storytelling since the Cul-de-Sac Crew came together. We’ve just sort of accepted Bobby as a fun guy who lives on a boat, and since finances have never been a major concern for the show it’s not as if there’s any real question of whether the alimony will make or break the show.
Rather, it becomes the latest in a series of investigations which return to a storyline that could disrupt the series’ dynamic and then prove that it is not going to actually disrupt the series’ dynamic. And while I do think that “Keeping Me Alive” is pushing the pattern a bit too heavily, and the show will have to introduce an actual storyline at some point, there’s enough to keep this episode grounded for me to continue to sing the show’s praises.
“The Damage You’ve Done”
October 13th, 2010
When Cougar Town changed (for the better), it could have completely ignored its past: considering that Jules dating younger men was a failure, there was every ability for the show to just pack up and move on.
However, while the show did change its focus to the community developing amongst the characters, “The Damage You’ve Done” actively unearths the show’s past. Jules runs into one of her ex-boy toys, someone who I had completely forgotten existed, and the show returns to an event that I had no recollection of which it could have swept under the rug.
And yet, in some ways it’s Lawrence and Biegel showing off: they’re sticking their tongue out at the skeptics, proving that the community they’ve developed is strong enough to withstand explosive secrets. However, at the same time, the episode is not without its consequences, maintaining the sense of weight that the show has carried even as it has established its casual atmosphere.
“Makin’ Some Noise”
October 6th, 2010
There’s an interesting duality to Cougar Town: the series is more consistently driven by change than any other television sitcom, and yet at the same time it feels the least vulnerable to the effects of those changes. “Makin’ Some Noise” is about how Jules and Travis each deal with a major change (Travis going to college), and yet it never seems as if those changes will be insurmountable or even that challenging.
Instead, the episode manages to create the sense of real change while also emphasizing that nothing is going to actually tear about this particular cul-de-sac. It’s the best of both worlds, delivering the sense of familiarity we expect from sitcoms without abandoning the real emotions of Travis’ move and its effects on his relationship with his mother (and her relationship with Grayson).
“All Mixed Up”
September 22nd, 2010
I am officially to the point where I am done “defending” Cougar Town: I refuse to accept that anyone who has recently watched the series could think it is anything but honest, earnest and hilarious, and so I’m just going to pretend that there are no naysayers out there. While many turn to Modern Family for their television comfort food on Wednesdays, for me Cougar Town manages to hit the same emotional notes while abandoning neither the honesty nor the snark.
There is nothing complex about “All Mixed Up,” largely relying on the strong interpersonal dynamics that developed over the course of last season, but the episode says something about those dynamics in light of recent changes. It successfully makes the argument that while their relationships will sustain them through any number of challenges in life, it will not be able to make it so that those challenges don’t exist. This is a starkly honest show (as I note above), and this allows them to say something tangible and real about their characters without introducing false conflict.
In other words, things aren’t “All Mixed Up” at all.
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.
“Feel a Whole Lot Better”
May 5th, 2010
In Scrubs’ first season, J.D. and Elliot were two people who should logically be together: they were clearly attracted to one another, they were both young and attractive, and they were the male and female leads on a television comedy series. However, in the span of a forty-minute episodes entitled “My Bed Banter & Beyond,” the two characters decide to embark on a relationship after spending a day in bed having sex and chatting about the future of their relationship. The episode cuts back and forth between their time in bed on that first day and their attempts to make the relationship work in the real world, and at the end (spoiler alert), they realize it was all a mistake, and just as we finally see them part as young lovers on that first day we see them broken apart a few weeks later. It was a really fantastic episode of television in terms of breaking down and psychoanalyzing the show’s decision to not follow through on that pairing, and it was the sort of subtle and effective storytelling that would abandon the show and that relationship until the show’s eighth season.
I was just saying to my friend Colin yesterday that Cougar Town is shaping up into a spiritual successor to Scrubs in certain areas, so it’s fitting that the show would introduce its own play on that episode and its functions with “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” another in a pretty long line of really strong episodes for the show. Playing out the “Will They, Won’t They” outside of the thralls of young love and within the dynamics of two divorcees trying to keep from being lonely for the rest of their lives, the episode plays out the consequences from Jules and Grayson’s hookup last week by having the characters lie to themselves about the dramatic conflict apparent in the story. While the episode skips over some of last week’s subtexts that could have made this even more complicated, they manage to squeeze in a lot of story which transforms last week’s hookup into something definitive.
And thus the transformation from “What the hell is this” to “the new Scrubs” continues.
“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.
“Turn This Car Around”
March 24th, 2010
Earlier this week, How I Met Your Mother did an episode which more or less spoke to one of the more popular readings of the show: people think that Ted is a jerk, so they did an episode where the characters discussed whether Ted was a jerk. In the process, at least to my mind, they were able to control the narrative of Ted’s behaviour and use that unpleasantness in order to say something about their friendship.
I guess you could say that “Turn This Car Around” says the same thing about the love of wine and sleeping with younger women on Cougar Town. The episode becomes about “change,” which is one of those really terrifying words on most sitcoms (Chuck Lorre is shaking in his boots at the very thought of it, I’m sure), and the show ends up making a compelling argument for small changes, rather than large ones. Combine with a completely useless subplot that made me laugh a lot, and you’ve got a nice half-hour.
“My Funky Valentine”
“When a Kid Goes Bad”
February 10th, 2010
When a sitcom does a special “holiday” episode, especially in its first season, it’s the ultimate test of the show’s understanding of its character dynamics. For some shows, the show adapts to fit the holiday, while in others the holiday adapts to fit the show: it’s a subtle difference, and both can create entertaining episodes, but I tend to prefer the latter for two key reasons.
The first is that I kind of resent that holidays actually change people. There’s always that sense that holidays are supposed to change people, that in some way the days are “different” than others, but at the core of any real relationship is a bond which should exist whether corporations have decided that people should exchange gifts or eat chocolates on a particular day. So I want a holiday to feel as if it is being filtered through a particular show, rather than that the characters are in some way conforming to the traditions therein.
The second reason is that I find episodes where the show adapts to fit the holiday reinforce the most annoying elements of sitcom structures. Whatever adaptation happens isn’t going to last, and when it’s related to a particular holiday that structure becomes that much more transparent. Yes, every sitcom has episodes where new conflicts arise based on a particular impulse, but when it’s a holiday it feels particularly inorganic.
I make these points as a way to contextualize my (relative) annoyance with tonight’s Modern Family and my enjoyment of tonight’s Cougar Town, despite the fact that it was neither the worst nor best night, respectively, for the two series.