In January, Warner Bros. Television gathered journalists in Pasadena for an event built around their comedy slate. Although there were screenings for both long-standing hit The Big Bang Theory and freshman success story Mom, the centerpiece of the evening was NBC’s Undateable, which debuts tonight at 9/8c with its first two episodes.
When the event took place, Undateable didn’t even have a release date. In talking to executive producer Bill Lawrence, though, this wasn’t necessarily a sign the show had no support. Even moving beyond the fact that Warner Bros. was using the evening as a platform for the series, NBC was also in then process of greenlighting what would become the Undateable Comedy Tour, a preview of which was offered to journalists to close out an evening that began with the screening of an episode of the series. It’s more support than you’re expect for a show airing at the end of May, a sign of the new state of summer programming and also the basic logic that pervades Undateable as a series and as an experience.
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).
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.
I feel as if “Everything Man” was written as some sort of ridiculous joke, fitting for the night before April Fool’s Day. My point is not that the episode wasn’t funny, but it seemed like the writer drew three things out of a hat and had to turn them into an episode, or perhaps it was the result if an improv session; they asked for a location and got bathroom, they requested an object and got talking toilet, and they asked for an occupation and got photographer.
I thought the episode had the signs of something that never quite fit together, trying to force too much action into that enormously large bathroom and never quite bringing together the separate storylines, but the show was having so much fun with its individual parts that I can’t really hold it against them. While some shows try to pretend that they’re more cohesive than they really are, Cougar Town knows when it’s forcing things, and that self-awareness goes a long way to keeping an episode like “Everything Man” moving; the impressive thing, really, is that it ends up a fairly nuanced investigation of the show’s romantic tension by the end of the half hour.
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.
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.
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.
ABC made a decision last year to save Scrubs, which at the time seemed like a mistake: the show was struggling mightily with its creative focus, and if you go back and read my review of the out-of-order finale NBC aired you’ll find that I was more than ready for the show to die. At the same time, there was a sense that a show seven years running deserved a better sendoff. So while I was frustrated that ABC chose to pick up the series on some level, I also hoped that it would be worth it.
It was. The show’s eighth season has not been amongst its most novel, but it’s probably the most consistent the show has been since at least Season 4, and as the series faces yet another finale with an uncertain future this time I find myself entire ready to say goodbye. The show has been on a victory lap all season, giving each character their time to reflect on the past seven years through a vacation, a new set of interns to remind them of themselves, and a new set of memorable if familiar patients that brought the show back to its emotional roots.
There are some rumblings that “My Finale” will actually be “J.D.’s Finale” more than that of the series: the first-person narrator of a majority of the series has been the series’ star, and his relationships with the various characters (his bromance with Turk, his relationship with Elliot, his mentorship with Dr. Cox) are the series’ most memorable. And it’s this reason that this doesn’t just feel like J.D.’s finale: his future is the future of all of these characters, and the idea of them continuing on while he’s off at another hospital doesn’t feel right.
For me, I want the show to be over: I want to go out on a good season, and on a great episode, one which takes some shortcuts but gives John Dorian the kind of exit that feels right for this character, and thus one that felt right for the series. It’s not that the series can’t continue beyond this point, but rather that in many ways it shouldn’t.
But, after a season of good will after seasons of struggle, I’m willing to keep an open mind should they make that decision.
When I heard that Scrubs was given an eighth season, I was frustrated: this is a show that has been proclaimed dead more times than I can count, and was quite actually creatively dead at a certain point in its seventh season. But if I had to give you a single reason why I fail to find much enthusiasm for the ABC premiere of Scrubs, it’s simple: fatigue.
It’s one thing to say that I grew tired, through particularly rough sixth and seventh seasons, of the show’s inconsistency of tone, allowing a pervading wackiness to overwhelm the heart that drove the show forward; that’s pretty understandable, and even partially acknowledged by Bill Lawrence and Co. behind the scenes. But I also found myself growing tired of the course correction: just as the initial problems were becoming too common, the solutions were becoming their own internal cliches, and the show’s structure was beginning to wear thin. I was ready to say goodbye to Scrubs as a show not because of its fixable struggles, but because whatever show it tried to be in spite of those problems wasn’t really holding my attention either.
What “My Jerks” and “My Last Words,” the first two episodes of the series to air on ABC following the show’s off-season move from NBC, represent for me is a test: to what degree can the show, now hyper-aware of fan desire to return to the tone of the first few seasons to the point of a meta-commentary during the credits of the first episode, rely on its old formulas without wearing thin the nostalgia of those watching the show. If you are someone who has always held out hope for Scrubs to get back on track, I can see how this episode could provide substantial hope for the future; similarly, for viewers tuning in after a long hiatus or for the first time, they will stand out as solid comedy episodes which balance slapstick and sentiment like few other shows can.
But as someone who was ready to call Scrubs a dead horse and send it off into the sunset, I’m not sure how long my nostalgia will be able to hold out; I was charmed and entertained by these episodes, but they felt alarmingly rote. They’re enough to get the show out of the television dog house, but are they really enough to reinvigorate the emotional connection some once had with the show?
As if to answer my question, Dr. Cox and J.D. discuss how they’re tired doing the same thing over and over again, a bit of foreshadowing to potentially spin the series off without its major stars but also a shrewd commentary on the show’s paradox: the network might be new and the energy might be higher than it’s been for a long time, but what’s old is all that’s new again.