Cougar Town: "All Mixed Up"
B+

Cougar Town: "All Mixed Up"

B+

Cougar Town

"All Mixed Up"

Season 2, Episode 1

Cougar Town's second season debuts tonight at 9:31 p.m. Eastern.

Who could you not live without? If you had to make a list of the people that are so vital to you that the thought of them not being around is simply terrifying, would it just consist of your family members and maybe your best friend? Would your parents be on there, even if you've long since ceased to be terribly close to them? What about siblings? What about your neighbors or children? Who, really, are the people that make your life matter? And is there a point where the life raft of people you really hold close to you is too full, where you have to start making choices about whom you're spending your life with? Ultimately, is all of this just too gruesome to think about?

After watching the first two episodes of Cougar Town's second season, I'm starting to think the show is becoming about these very questions, about the idea that the family you're born with isn't necessarily the family you die with. (There's an off-handed mention to main character Jules' father in the episode tonight that's mostly dismissed as soon as it comes up.) It's not a bad theme to build a show around - many, many shows have done it - but Cougar Town is notable for suggesting that all the people any of its characters need are living on the same sleepy stretch of Floridian street. These are people whose proximity to each other becomes a way to feel welcome, safe, and well-adjusted. It's easy to write off the show for its first handful of episodes, its title, or its often goofy comedy. And, yeah, this isn't a show for everyone (nor should it be). It's very much an acquired taste, but there's something buried down in its rhythms that's like having drinks with friends in the early evening. Hanging out with your real family can be the worst, but your friends? All they want is to be with you. In the best case scenario, at least.

Most of the hype around the second season premiere of Cougar Town has focused on the fact that Jennifer Aniston is starring, the second of the six Friends to make the pilgrimage over to Courtney Cox's new show (what with Matthew Perry's new series popping up on ABC later this season, can a Mr. Sunshine/Cougar Town crossover be far behind in the minds of ABC executives?). Aniston plays Jules' therapist, and the part is more or less a twist on the old, "The psychiatrist is crazier than the patient!" gimmick, though the show has a lot of fun with the idea that the therapist is obviously batshit (and you'll guess where much of her advice is stemming from fairly early on), but Jules still hangs on her every word. It's a funny bit, and it highlights just how much Jennifer Aniston is built to be a TV star.

This isn't meant as an insult. It probably reads as one because our culture still has a weird belief that the movies are somehow better than TV and more luxurious. But Aniston's particular quirks mellow into blandness on a big enough screen, where they play very nicely on the small screen. (Also, she has a terrible time picking good scripts for films.) The biggest TV stars have always had that thing where they feel more attractive than you but still approachable somehow, and Aniston is decidedly in that category. She's like the girl you hung out with in college all of the time, desperately hoping to get her to go out with you. This works on TV. On the big screen, it can feel too lackadaisical. Like her or not, she projects that chemistry on TV.

But enough about Aniston, who's seriously not in that much of tonight's episode. From the two episodes I've seen, it sure seems like this season's big idea is going to be about the point where you need to break with the people who mean the most to you. Without spoiling the episode too much, Travis (the nicely laconic Dan Byrd) is going away to college, Grayson (Josh Hopkins) and Jules (Cox) have been spending too much time together, and the gang hangs out so much that they must seem hermetically sealed from the outside. Not that this is a bad thing. One of the nice things about a show like Cougar Town is that we get to be a part of the gang, to be on the inside and enjoying ourselves. But the first two episodes of the season pointedly ask when having a connection so strong that it seems impenetrable to outsiders is too much of a good thing. Travis is a pretty confident kid, but he's also got relationships with his parents and their friends that may seem slightly too co-dependent (and more on this next week). Similarly, Jules and Grayson have what seems like a healthy relationship from the outside, but what happens when she realizes she can hardly stand to be apart from him?

This all sounds really high-minded. At its most basic level, Cougar Town is a really funny and winning show about how nice it is to have a lot of friends that you like spending time with. There's a moment in tonight's episode featuring Busy Phillips' Laurie completely missing the point of something Christa Miller's Ellie does, and it's as funny as anything in any comedy premiere this season so far. There are numerous reasons to tune in that don't involve grand themes or anything like that. For one thing, Phillips gives one of TV's best comedic performances. For another, the ensemble is one of the most authentically tight on TV. For yet another, the writing somehow manages to sneak in tons of jokes while maintaining the show's laid-back vibe. And while the show's ratings weren't terrible last season, it could sure use the love this season, as it regularly slumps some from its Modern Family lead-in. If you haven't given it a chance since early last year, tonight's the perfect chance to check back in.

At the same time, though, there's plenty here for those who like to do a little digging. Even the best sitcoms suggest around the edges that they're about deeply damaged people who can only find solace in each other. Cougar Town all but comes out and says that's the case with its characters in these two episodes, and it takes its time trying to figure out what makes them tick, how they got to be this way. At the same time, it asks what our responsibilities to those we're closest to are. Do ex-husbands and wives have a responsibility to be friends so their kids can be relatively well-adjusted, or is just being civil toward each other enough? And at what point do you step in when a friend's relationship is just getting to be too clingy? This is a warm show that invites us into its circle, but it's also a show about self-examination, about hitting a certain age - be it 18 or 30 or 40 - and realizing that you're not going to live forever and if you're going to be happy, you'd better take some steps to make your life the way you'd prefer it to be.

Cougar Town hasn't taken as big of a step up from season one to season two as it did from the first part of season one to the last part of season one. But the step from "average" to "good" was the easy part. Season two is the season where viewers are going to find out if the show has what it takes to make the small steps needed to get from "good" to "great." There's every indication that it's on the way there in the premiere because it's finally started to wrestle with some of the knottier questions at its center. Not every sitcom looks at its ensemble and asks, "Just what do these people see in each other?" Cougar Town is betting it can become one of the very best shows on TV by digging into that very question.

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