The title card for the season premiere of Cougar Town—“Season five? Didn’t see that coming”—pretty much says it all. After existing for three seasons on the bubble on ABC, the show managed to snag the holy grail of low-rated shows and move to another network, freeing itself from the unforgiving world of broadcast ratings and finding an environment where it could operate in peace. And not only was TBS willing to let them play in their sandbox, they were willing to let them do it for a second year, meaning that Cougar Town’s on track to hit 89 episodes at the end of this season—a respectable mark for a show that most people thought would have cratered two or three seasons ago.
Most remarkably, it’s survived this long without changing too much: After a rocky start, it figured out what show it wanted to be six episodes in, and it’s never moved far from that. Unlike its sitcom soulmate Community (also enjoying an improbable fifth season at the moment), Cougar Town doesn’t need Bill Lawrence or Kevin Biegel to ride back in as full-time showrunners and “save” the show—because there’s nothing here that needs saving. Yes, the action became broader and raunchier last year, but none of it was a deal-breaker—more growing pains as the show figured out what it could get away with on a new network. The show continued to prove with its various relationships it could hit the emotional high points when it wanted to. As my colleague Alasdair said in his pre-air season review, Cougar Town doesn’t need to justify its existence to anyone, and it doesn’t need to start out with a triumphant “we’re back” or “we’re still here” party. They’ve survived this long doing what they do best, and having grown comfortable in their new space they’re going to enjoy that comfort.
All of that is a roundabout way of saying that Cougar Town returns much as it ever was, and “All Or Nothing” serves as a welcome reintroduction to this world. As it did last year, the premiere picks up almost immediately after the road trip finale, the Cul-de-Sac Crew settled back into Jules’ kitchen after their jaunt to Los Angeles. However, the status quo remains upended, as Travis and Laurie are still together and have moved into the honeymoon phase of their relationship, making out with wild abandon to the disbelieving stares of the rest of the group. (Ellie’s unable to put it into words, so she decides to invent a new one: “Awwwwwblech.”) This is a relationship that the show’s danced around for years now, and having bitten the bullet at the end of “Have Love Will Travel,” they’ve decided not to change course. Cougar Town’s never shied away from being meta about its structure, and Grayson expresses the general opinion of both the group and the creative team about the new relationship: “It’s weird seeing them together, but after such a long buildup, guess we got to let it play it out for a while.”
As a result, the episode doesn’t start out with the big questions about whether or not this relationship is a good idea. It opts instead to see the repercussions of this relationship on Jules. Understandably, she’s more than a little perturbed by the idea of her beloved son dating her beloved best friend, even though she’s trying hard as hell not to show it. It’s a slow burn of her growing increasingly twitchy around the two, offering nervous high-fives and wildly fluctuating volume. And the comedy becomes even more disturbing—playing off a recurring horror-movie thread in the episode—when Jules stumbles on the two in the shower, losing her footing in the chaos and grabbing for handholds she never should have grabbed. (“The towel bar?” “No,” she says in a damaged tone.)
As always, there’s a tightrope of just how insane Jules can seem before it becomes painful to watch, and “All Or Nothing” skirts right on the edge when she decides the best solution is to be as open as possible about sex in front of the two. Here, her overcompensation leads to a cringeworthy conversation—one that Ellie unsurprisingly wanted a front-row seat to—and one that manages to make the new relationship distressing in a way that’s not even about the relationship. Yes, Laurie and Travis being together may be uncomfortable for some, but there’s no way it can be as uncomfortable as this, with Jules forcing her tongue down Grayson’s throat and Tom talking about an Inuit sex position called “the Bear Claw.”
Thankfully, the one thing the show always remembers is that while Jules lacks a lot of foresight and pop-culture knowledge (she thinks “Hitchcock” is a dirty name) she always stumbles across the right answer. This time, it’s the realization that the thing she’s most worried about is what this relationship will do to the group. Going to Travis’s house—once again, walking in on the two in flagrante delicto—she offers her unique style of support, arguing that “we’re all in a relationship together” and yet somehow still making it better off than it was when she arrived. It still remains to be seen if Travis/Laurie is sustainable long-term, but if Jules can overcome her neuroses to treat it as something real, that’s a definite sign something important’s happening.
The B-story is less meaningful to the show’s big picture, but proves that there’s still life in just placing two of these people into a conflict and letting them have it out. It’s the return of Cougar Town’s most famous recurring gag, as Penny Can has hit it big internationally—and thanks to a clause in Bobby’s contract, while Lou Diamond Phillips is the face of the product in America, Bobby’s the face of it overseas. This means that Bobby’s a local celebrity to visiting tourists, who point excitedly at him and utter “Penny Can!” in multiple languages. And more immediately, it means he’s earned several thousand dollars in residuals, allowing him to indulge in the finer things like frozen yogurt machines and used hot tubs. (They don’t combine as well as you’d think. Sprinkles get in the pump.)
While this could have been a doorway to a simple plot about Bobby enjoying money and fame, Cougar Town thankfully decides not to be lazy. Grayson, seeing that Bobby finally has money, starts dropping subtle hints that Bobby pay a bar tab that’s reached Norm Peterson and Barney Gumble proportions. The hints grow less subtle as Bobby’s entirely unable to grasp the point that he might owe Grayson anything: He treats the list of IOUs as a “book of treasured memories,” and when Grayson sets up a massive beer pyramid as a visual aid, all he can think to do is run through it like the Kool-Aid man. It’s an arc that lets Josh Hopkins play increasingly frustrated, Brian Van Holt play cheerfully dense, and Ian Gomez excitedly drive a car through a pyramid of beer cans—none of which I’ll ever say no to seeing.
And once again, the show finds an emotional center to the story that keeps either character from seeming like the guilty party. Bobby’s not malicious about it—he’s merely so good-natured that it would never cross his mind that a friend like Grayson would hold a debt like this over his head. And for Grayson, it’s not really about the money: It’s about the fact that he was being charitable to the often-penniless Bobby and was hurt that generosity wasn’t being recognized. The resolution between the two has the sincerity we’ve come to expect from both; men who’ve moved past the awkwardness of their history with Jules and turned out to be close as brothers.
In the end, everyone winds up where they belong, together over a couple bottles of wine—even finding a new place to be together in Bobby’s used hot tub. (Except for Tom, who’s been banished for groping an undefined target.) Things may be changing to some degree, but “All Or Nothing” proves that regardless of change, the one thing that remains constant is that after all this time Cougar Town still knows how to be Cougar Town.
- Cheers, everyone! Ryan McGee has passed the torch—or rather the giant torch holder repurposed as a wine glass—to me for weekly coverage. I’ll do my best to live up to the high standards he set over the last two seasons.
- The C-plot of the episode is largely forgettable—Stan’s unable to sleep after Andy let him stay up to watch Nightmare On Elm Street, and Ellie opts to let him clean up his own mess and provide as little help as possible. Mostly fun for the various horror movie homages, ranging from Ellie creeping up behind Andy with a knife (“I knew this day would come!”) and a moment where Tom pops up to return said knife that made me legitimately jump out of my seat. Plus, a fantastic scene for Tom where he poses as Krueger to admit to Stan that he needs to move to Canada.
- Speaking of Tom, the running joke (pun intended) is that he realizes he misses out on all the fun stuff by sticking around the cul-de-sac, so he’s now sprinting between the bar and the boatyard to make sure he’s always around and bought new jogging shoes for that purpose.
- Yea or nay on Bobby’s beard? I’m on the yea side myself.
- Movie slut is the new movie buff. Change approved!
- Big Tippi’s part of the family now. “I’ll pour until you tell me to stop. Say when! … Well, I should have seen that coming.”
- Tales of Laurie’s past: One of her foster brothers was part stereo. Technotron was born during a thunderstorm and had insane beat-boxing capabilities.
- Grayson: “I can’t hold my tongue anymore!” Bobby: “What, did you burn it on pizza?”
- “Remember when Andy started wearing tank tops? I confronted him about it.” “At his first press conference as mayor. There were reporters there!” “I raised my hand. He shouldn’t have given me the floor.”
- “Even I’m uncomfortable, and I once had sex in a cemetery. I had ‘Rita Rogers, Loving Wife and Mother’ printed on my back for two weeks.”