“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.
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.
“Here Comes My Girl”
November 25th, 2009
Thanksgiving is a holiday about family, which when deployed in television does one of three things. The first is to emphasize the cohesiveness of a particular group of characters who work seamlessly when brought into the same setting. The second is to emphasize the sheer chaos that results from the show’s personalities coming together, to either comic or dramatic purposes. The third, meanwhile, is to demonstrate that the show is a convoluted mess where bringing the characters together is a futile exercise that will fail to provide interesting television.
What’s helpful for ABC’s 9pm comedies is that both of them have built their identity around the idea of family, to the point where bringing the gang together is like second nature to the two shows. Cougar Town has really started to charm me as of late, and “Here Comes My Girl” is yet another fine episode that brings together this group of individuals into a family of sorts that’s just an enormous amount of fun to watch bounce off of each other. And “Fizbo” is perhaps my favourite Modern Family episode yet, taking advantage of the chaos at the heart of this family and bringing things to a satisfying (and also sort of sweet) conclusion.
It made for a really comforting hour of television comedy, which is what the timeslot has been providing (on average) all season.
“Don’t Come Around Here No More”
November 4th, 2009
It’s been a while (since, you know, the show’s pilot) since I’ve visited Cougar Town from a critical perspective, as the show has largely stood to serve as background for my Modern Family review writing. There are worse fates for a series, of course, such as not watching them at all, but with Cougar Town I feel as if there’s a definite need to say something about a show that’s been unfairly maligned in some respects and quite fairly attacked in others.
There were moments in the first six episodes of the show that it became the show that some critics and viewers make it out to be, an overacted farce of an insufferable woman dating a younger man. But what I liked about the show was that it was never just that show, never just a show about that particular phenomenon. Instead, the show was about a woman dealing with a lousy ex-husband who remains in her life, an overly critical best friend, a dependent co-worker, a sarcastic son, an antagonistic neighbour, etc. And what makes me stick with the show is that for all of Courteney Cox’s overacting (which is truly bad at points) is that, by and large, I like those character. I like Bill Lawrence’s writing style, I like the dynamic between the different characters (Bobby remaining friends with Ellie’s husband, for example), and I think there’s an engaging show here.
And to be honest, I thought “Don’t Come Around Here No More” brought it out. With Jules’ boyfriend out of the picture, the show becomes a show about a “cul-de-sac crew” rather than about simply Jules’ character, and even elements of the episode which in theory should have amplified Jules’ worst qualities connected for me. It’s still not a perfect series, but this half-hour was a lot of fun and I’m not going to pretend my Modern Family review wasn’t later because of it.
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.