Cougar Town has long since passed the point where it needs to justify its existence. The threat of cancellation has loomed over the show ever since it abandoned the salacious premise indicated by its title in favor of being a laidback hangout comedy—a transition, it bears pointing out, that began just seven episodes into the first season—and its early ratings gradually fizzled. Now entering its fifth season and its second on TBS, Cougar Town knows precisely what it wants to be: the exact same show it has been for most of its life, one that mixes knowingly zany comic misadventures with low-key character work. The adventures of Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox) and the rest of the Cul-de-Sac Crew typically involve about 18 minutes of enjoyable goofiness, ranging from the gang’s long-running in-jokes to meta gags, mixed in with about five minutes of genuine emotion and sentimentality.
It’s a well-worn formula that closely follows the template of the previous effort from co-creator Bill Lawrence, Scrubs. This approach has won the kind of small but ardent following that can see a show through its first cancellation. Cougar Town has succeeded because it’s the show its fans want it to be. The phrase “comfort food” has been applied to the series, and it’s an appropriate description. That may sound like damning with faint praise, but that’s only the case if one assumes that every comedy on TV must somehow be revolutionary. Cougar Town has smaller goals, but it has proved exceptionally good at meeting them, and it’s shown a knack for knowing just when to surpass expectations for maximum effect. The real question is not so much how Cougar Town compares to more innovative shows but rather what sets this fifth season apart from its four predecessors, what makes the coming 13 episodes feel new and vital. The title card for the season premiere jokingly acknowledges this challenge in light of the show’s unlikely survival: “Season five? Didn’t see that coming.”
To that end, the show pokes fun at its own predictability through the Cul-de-Sac Crew’s creepiest hanger-on, neighborhood neurosurgeon Tom (Robert Clendenin). His obsessive fascination with the group means that he can display knowledge of the more formulaic aspects of their adventures without entirely breaking the fourth wall. These jokes can sometimes be overly cute; a gag in the premiere that he has bought new running shoes to dart between the gang’s various unfolding subplots is right on the borderline. Still, the jokes allow Cougar Town to maintain its self-deprecating tone, which feeds in nicely to its more general, easygoing charm. The show can be serious, but it knows it’s not that serious.
The season’s major narrative shake-up is the now official romance between Jules’ son Travis (Dan Byrd) and longtime family friend Laurie (Busy Philipps). The possibility of that relationship has been teased since the beginning—Laurie jokingly mulled over the prospect of dating and marrying Travis early in season one—but it only became a serious prospect last year. This season’s initial stories suggest a very Cougar Town progression in how the relationship is handled: The first episode considers what their dating means for Jules, the second then looks at how Travis and Laurie now relate to each other as both friends and lovers, and the third pushes their relationship into the background in favor of other stories. Their romance may well end up as the defining character arc for this season, but the early returns suggest its more immediate use is as one of several ongoing catalysts for episode-specific plots, much like the mayoralty of Andy Torres (Ian Gomez) or the mellow poverty and general ridiculousness of Bobby Cobb (Brian Van Holt).
Particularly telling is the decision to minimize the roles of Travis and Laurie in their first episode together as a couple; their constantly canoodling presence is felt throughout the episode, but it’s always filtered through the reactions of Jules Cobb. As much as Cougar Town is an ensemble hangout comedy, this is Jules’ show—and not simply because this is still technically a Courteney Cox vehicle. Jules dominates the stories of the Cul-de-Sac Crew because she is the woman most committed to holding that wildly disparate group together. Her worries about friends drifting apart represent the closest thing Cougar Town can have to an existential threat. While Jules’ husband Grayson (Josh Hopkins) and best friend Ellie (Christa Miller) don’t dare get their hopes up about Travis and Laurie no longer spending every waking hour with the group, Jules considers it nothing less than a tragedy. She sets about averting it with her signature mix of good intentions and total lack of judgment.
Crucially, the jokes here aren’t really at Jules’ expense, at least no more so than is deserved based on her admittedly wrongheaded approach. Cougar Town isn’t afraid to portray its protagonist as silly, even ignorant, but the gaps in her knowledge are consistently those that make sense for a character with her particular background—young single mother turned fortysomething realtor turned very frequent social drinker—to have. There’s no particular reason why Jules should recognize a Terminator reference, for instance. The ways in which she compensates for her lack of formal education are what make her alternately endearing and maddening. She displays commendable emotional intelligence in how she ultimately comes to terms with the awkwardness of her son sleeping with one of her best friends, whereas her longstanding habit of coming up with improved versions of established expressions speaks to her not always justified belief that she knows better than, well, everybody. The fifth season is as aware as ever of Jules’ faults, but it continues to make the compelling argument that her virtues more than compensate. Five seasons in, Cougar Town may not have many new points to make about its characters, but those viewers already convinced of the show’s charms will find the show as amusing and entertaining as ever.
Created by: Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Starring: Courteney Cox, Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, Dan Byrd, Josh Hopkins, Ian Gomez, Brian Van Holt
Debuts: January 7 at 10 p.m. on TBS
Format: Half-hour comedy
Three episodes watched for review.