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Mad Men, The Americans, and Brushes with Everyday Terror

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“The Crash” and The Americans’ “Trust Me”

May 21st, 2013

Of the shows I fell behind on earlier this year, The Americans is what I’ve considered my first priority to catch up on, although even that has been a slow process; I just finished “Trust Me,” the sixth episode of the FX series’ acclaimed first season, last night.

However, sometimes timing is fortuitous, as I watched it after having watched—and podcast with the folks at the Mad World Podcast—about Mad Men‘s “The Crash,” and I was struck by a shared interest in how the normal manifests within the sensational. Obviously, “Trust Me” isn’t a trippy drug trip, but it nonetheless juxtaposes a form of psychological struggle or torture with scenes of danger that at first manifest as part of the game but eventually appear to be simply a coincidental brush with everyday terror.

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Cougar Town – “The Damage You’ve Done”

“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.

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Cougar Town – “Makin’ Some Noise”

“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).

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Season Premiere: Cougar Town – “All Mixed Up”

“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.

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Season Finale: Cougar Town – “Finding Out”

“Finding Out”

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.

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Cougar Town – “Letting You Go”

“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.

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Cougar Town – “Everything Man”

“Everything Man”

March 31st, 2010

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.

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