Last weekend, Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence unleashed a 10-minute spoiler reel for the upcoming season of the show. It was a move that flies in the face of most marketing, in which teasing the audience to tune in to the actual broadcast is the entire point. However, Lawrence wasn’t trying to spoil existing audiences on upcoming plot points; he’s trying to spoil misconceptions about the show for those that still think in their heart of hearts that Cougar Town is a show about Courteney Cox fucking younger guys. Those 10 minutes serve as evidence in the courtroom of pop-culture misconceptions.
To be fair, Cougar Town is a name that leads many down the wrong path. Much digital and literal ink has been wasted on discussing just how horrible a title it is. Should a title alone determine someone’s desire to watch a show? (Ask Terriers, which might be nodding its head in agreement.) Early episodes of Cougar Town directly dealt with the topic implicit in the title; those half-dozen installments featured all the main players that still populate the show today, but they were background for Cox’s character, Jules Cobb, trying to relive her 20s after missing out the first time due to a teenage pregnancy. As such, Cougar Town was a terrible title that described an equally terrible premise.
After sampling the show, many left, never to return. Promises that the show had morphed into something else fell on deaf ears. But here’s the thing: It really did morph into something else. The seventh episode of the first season, “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” broke from the mold and simply depicted the ensemble gathering in Jules’ house, effectively making Cougar Town a “hang-out” shot. That descriptor sounds demeaning, but it shouldn’t. Before television was inundated with series featuring complex storylines that stretch out into infinity and beyond, the majority of really great shows were “hang-out” shows. Jules and her close circle of cul-de-sac friends soon followed in that grand tradition, as they didn’t do much besides drink wine and crack wise to each other. Cougar Town is now a show that’s ultimately about adult friendship, which is a topic sorely unexplored on television today.
That’s not to say that nothing happens on the show. There’s progression in terms of plot and character in nearly every episode. But these things happen at a glacial pace, cruising along in a golf cart rather than speeding down the highway in a sports car. There was a time I worried that the characters were actually too codependent on one another to be seen as worthy of unadulterated praise. But the show has wisely expanded its worldview to demonstrate that the cul-de-sac isn’t a refuge from the real world, but rather a place everyone feels most at home. It’s a crucial difference, and one that speaks to the show’s anachronistically positive viewpoint. Ellie (Christa Miller) may mock Jules’ ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt), but deep down she loves the man despite the fact that he cheated on Jules throughout their marriage. Laurie Keller (Busy Philips) is often the butt of people’s jokes, but her seemingly dimwitted nature hides a beautiful heart and a sharper mind than many assume. It’s fun to simply watch all of these people interact because deep down, we wish we could be in Jules’ kitchen with them, or playing Penny Can on Bobby’s boat. There’s a depth to these characters that allows for surprising moments of pathos. And if those moments don’t usually translate into the stomach-punches often seen on Lawrence’s last show, Scrubs, they are plenty effective all the same.
The third-season première, which airs tonight, doesn’t serve as a reboot. But it could easily serve as a retroactive pilot. Would the final moments of “Ain’t Love Strange” land as solidly were this the first 20 minutes we spent with these people? Of course not. But television’s a curious beast. It doesn’t get do-overs in the way that other media does. The fixes that so often occur in music or literature happen outside of the public eye, before actual release. If a band makes a terrible song, it can choose not to release it. An author might discover her novel’s real story in Chapter 12 and then start over from scratch before anyone reads a single word. Cougar Town can’t erase those first half-dozen episodes any more than Parks And Recreation can erase its first, lopsided season. But there’s a certain joy in watching a show figure out its problems on the fly and then emerge the better for its struggles. And this season shows most of those struggles long in the past, replaced primarily by pure pleasure.
(I’m going to get into specifics about tonight’s première, so consider this fair warning now if you don’t want to be spoiled. Normally, I wouldn’t go into specifics, but the show apparently doesn’t care, given that aforementioned 10-minute online sizzle reel. If you don’t know, and want to be surprised, come back here after you’ve watched the episode. And you should watch the episode, and this third season, because it’s really, really great.)
So let’s talk about that final scene, shall we? I’m glad I got to see this episode before those 10 minutes were revealed online, because I can safely say I didn’t see that proposal coming. I’m normally loath to learn anything about an upcoming episode of a show I watch. I get why Cougar Town is spoiling preconceptions by overtly demonstrating that Jules Cobb is settling down with a man her age. But that moment packed a serious emotional punch in a way that would have been denied had I been waiting for it to happen. It plays against audience expectation because we’re savvy enough now to understand the mechanics of television writing. Events such as proposals simply don’t happen in the third-season première. Except, of course, when they do.
In some ways, it shouldn’t have been that big a surprise. The decision to put Jules and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) together happened much earlier than expected, and thus Grayson’s elaborate ruse fits in nicely with the show’s ability to go against the tide when it comes to deploying certain plot points. It reminds me very much of the way the show is edited: There are often scenes that extend just past the length that would be appropriate in other comedies. The camera holds the action just a little longer than it should, almost as if it’s loath to move to another scene. One of my favorite scenes of season one, in which Jules and DJ Ellie dance to a remix of a Grayson quote, goes on about 10 seconds longer than it reasonably should. But those were 10 of my favorite seconds in the show’s history.
What’s truly great about Grayson’s plan is that it flies in the face of one of the episode’s central conceits: Jules is so predictable that everyone in the cul-de-sac crew can anticipate her every reaction to every situation. Grayson’s song about her slightly longer morning routine has its roots in “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which was the first episode to feature a bizarre Grayson musical number. Whereas his song in that episode had observations that were based on some prejudices about Jules, tonight’s song features everyone else joining in (even Bob Clendenin’s Tom, who does a hilarious mime outside Jules’ window while people inside wait patiently for coffee). Jules takes the song as an insult, but it’s really an ode to her position as the foundation of their group. Whereas she used to hold those people so tightly she turned into a social black hole, now she’s the bedrock around which others can evolve.
But that doesn’t mean she’s finished evolving as a human being, which makes Grayson’s long con of a proposal so much fun. A random encounter with a group of skater kids turns into an elaborate plan to fulfill her dream of a magical engagement right under her nose. There’s a running gag in tonight’s première about who should be in the “gang,” with an ever-dwindling number fitting into Ellie’s perfect combination. (It goes from “Ellie, Andy, Grayson, and Jules” down to “Ellie and a glass of wine” within a few minutes.) But it’s clear during the proposal itself that it includes everyone, even Tom, as Grayson ensures that everyone’s around to see him propose. Why? Because that’s how Jules envisioned it, even if nothing about how it actually plays out was in her original conception.
Other aspects of tonight’s episode get overshadowed by the proposal plotline, but that’s probably for the best. Neither were really strong stories in and of themselves. Bobby giving Dog Travis to son Travis (Dan Byrd) was slight, but fun, especially given the random green screen that exists in Travis’ new digs. (If you’re wondering: Yes, that pops up again this season. Quite a bit. Silly? Sure. Awesome? You bet.) Laurie’s ankle monitor is probably fitting for her character, but is there any way she wore that monitor for a month without anyone asking about its origin? The story involving Ellie, Andy (Ian Gomez) and their fear of their son, however, just felt flat from moment one. At its heart, Cougar Town is a show about adult friendships, not parents. The way in which the show overtly avoids showing Ellie and Andy in their parental roles doesn’t make them evil people; it’s just not what the show is really about. Each time the kid, Stan, appears, or is mentioned, feels a bit jarring. It gives Laurie a nice moment with Ellie near the end of the episode, but we’ve seen plenty of ways that these two connect without having a devil-baby get them to that position.
Still, Cougar Town works as much for those heartfelt moments as for its character-based comedy. If you don’t feel bad for Bobby as the camera pans past him after Grayson’s proposal, well, I’m not sure I like you very much. He’s a sad soul in that moment, but the very fact that he has a soul speaks to the humanity each character on this show has. Over the course of this season (I’ve seen the next four episodes), Bobby and others face some choices in the wake of tonight’s engagement. These choices aren’t seismic. They won’t change the fate of the universe, the world, or even their town. They will only change what happens inside the cul-de-sac. The human-scaled nature of this show’s world doesn’t have the sexy appeal of other shows currently on television. But trying to be sexy led to this show being called Cougar Town, and we’ve all seen how well that worked out, and continues to work out, for casual viewers. Tonight’s première features everything that fans already love about the show, and also serves as a statement of purpose for those who long ago abandoned it. I’ll drink to that.
- I really want one of those straps to hold a glass of wine around my neck. Like Laurie, I hate getting up.
- Travis lives in a two-bedroom home with nine guys. Two of them are named Steve.
- Apparently “car sharking” is an epidemic in Florida.
- When it comes to lovin’, Jules is a street-rapping poet, yo.
- Tom sleeps nude. As if anyone thought otherwise.
- I might watch an entirely green-screened episode of Cougar Town.
- Jules dubs the TP-ing of the skater kid’s house “Operation: Revengeance.” Who knew that she was a Metal Gear fan?
- Bobby has thought far too long about what he would say should Travis ever come out, due to Jules’ theory that every single male over the age of 35 is gay.
- In case you’re curious, the song that plays over the proposal is Ed Sheeran’s “Fall.”
- “But I like boring! That wasn’t the right thing to say.”
- “Is it weird that we’re doing this and can’t see ourselves on the monitor?”
- “Some devil-babies are just devil-babies.”
- “Revengeance is mine!”
In case that wasn't enough to convince you, please enjoy these two new Cougar Town clips, exclusive to The A.V. Club.