Certain characters bring out the best in certain writers. Back when I worked my way through Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I always knew that Willow Rosenberg would be extra funny/adorable/heartbreaking in the hands of Jane Espenson. On Cougar Town, if I see co-creator Kevin Biegel’s name on the main writing credit, I make sure to keep my eye trained on Bobby Cobb. Who knows what alchemy occurs between writers and fictional characters—I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want a midichlorian-esque explanation for it. The proof’s in the pudding, or in this case the episode. And as a follow-up to season three’s “A One Story Town,” tonight’s episode “Between Two Worlds” matches that series highlight with another strong, insightful examination of the show’s most melancholy character.
“Melancholy” isn’t a word most people would associate with Cougar Town, but there’s a lingering sadness to the entire endeavor that grounds its normally silly antics and keeps them from floating into space. Were the show all about wine spikes and fake superpowers, it would still be an amusing show. “Between Two Worlds” has both of those elements in place, but also takes a slightly dated reference and turns in into a referendum on Bobby’s overall status within the group as well as his own life. I’m not sure how many watching tonight understood the origins of the name “Ron Mexico,” but I’m also not sure its derivation particularly matters. Whether or not you know its relationship to Michael Vick is irrelevant. (I kept waiting for at least one person in-show to draw a comparison, but it never came.) Who “Ron Mexico” first was doesn’t matter. What Bobby Cobb pours into this new incarnation does.
The Cul-De-Sac Crew is both a support group and a slight trap. While each member encourages and supports the others, there’s also a tendency for the group as a whole to unwittingly support stasis. Keeping things the same is a nice idea, but also chafes against the actual change that has occurred over the first three seasons of Cougar Town. And yet, while many things have changed, certain fundamental aspects of Bobby’s life simply have not altered. He’s still single. He’s still living on a boat, barely eking out a living as a golf pro. And he’s still stung by the marriage of Grayson and Jules, even while simultaneously supportive of it. He doesn’t want to insert himself into that mix, but he also wants the type of companionship that the others in the group currently enjoy.
Whether or not that’s actually possible forms the spine of tonight’s episode, in which a chance encounter with Jerry (seen in the season première) triggers fears within Bobby that his overall evolution as a human has ceased. Indeed, he worries that he has regressed. “Ron Mexico” arises from his long-standing con of stealing coffee from men in the bathroom at the time their orders are called. He answers for the non-present “Ron,” sees a poster behind the counter for “Mexico,” and soon an alter ego everyone loves is born. Cops take Ron along on meth lab busts. Girls freely give Ron their number. And AA support groups eat up Ron’s fictional biography (which bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Forrest Gump).
Andy, first as amused by this new persona as anyone, soon worries about the psychological underpinnings behind it. When a member of the AA group confronts the pair on Bobby’s boat, The Golfer Formerly Known As Cobb unpacks his reasoning in a way that would be fit for most dramas:
“I peaked in college, I drive a golf cart instead of a car, and I live on a crusty boat that’s so full of spiders, it’s like a spider nursery. Oh, also? My wife divorced me and ended up marrying one of my best friends! You know, sometimes, late at night, after I’ve killed the day’s spiders, I lie in bed wondering if I’ll ever be more than I already am.”
The spider stuff is silly, no doubt. But it’s also specific in a way that dimensionalizes Bobby as a character. Cougar Town’s secret weapon lies in the way it sneaks in recognizable traits. Tonight’s secondary plot, inspired by The Avengers, has Laurie depicting each of the principals’ superpowers. We get a breakdown of each one: Jules can solve any problem during sex, Ellie can start a fight between any two people, Andy can find anything, Stan has crazy toddler strength, Bobby can bestow the perfect nickname to anyone, and Grayson is a master at impersonation. Only Travis’ power goes initially unmentioned, which gives further legs to the story while also giving him another way to slowly ingratiate himself into the Cul-De-Sac Crew as a whole.
If Bobby is working to find his new place within the group, Travis is slowing figuring out how to be part of it (and, indeed, if that’s something he actually wants to do). His still too-tight-to-be-truly-comfortable relationship with Jules is a problem, but so are his affections for Laurie, which tie directly into his eventual superpower. Anyone who saw him dance with Wade’s face beaming from the iPad attached to his head in season 3’s “Southern Accents” already knew that his superhero identity is “Selfless Man,” but it still feels like a victory for Laurie to recognize it all the same. Bobby and Travis couldn’t be more different in certain ways, but the way each desperately puts on a good face to shield themselves from the world links them intimately together. Cougar Town isn’t afraid to provide each with serious obstacles, but also constantly offers hope for change. Even if nothing was fundamentally altered on the surface tonight, both Bobby and Travis made forward strides all the same.
In tonight’s third narrative, Jules asks Ellie to use her superpower to kick off an argument between herself and Grayson in order to keep the marriage “passionate”. Grayson’s “yes” attitude toward all things, including but not limited to a large bill for saving the tree outside their house, has Jules worried. For his part, Grayson avoids conflict in order to sidestep the issues he had with his previous wife. Introducing the problem of Jules’ last name ultimately kickstarts a scuffle between them that escalates into an all-out tug of war over her continued use of Bobby’s surname. (Her maiden name is apparently out of the question, in that it rhymes with “Flenis”.) While the least impressive of the three storylines tonight, it still demonstrates that even those seemingly “settled down” in the Cul-De-Sac crew still have a lot of change yet ahead of them. The cul-de-sac itself is designed as a dead-end. But those living in it are still moving forward, however slowly it may seem at times.
Despite the heavy undertones just outlined, Biegel’s script keeps things moving at a crisp pace, with multiple gags dovetailing nicely throughout. Such writing can feel paint-by-the-numbers in lesser hands but Scrabble, superheroes, and wine spikes (they’re like fire hydrants…but useful!) all serve as ways to balance the silly with the serious, something Cougar Town at its best does as well as any show currently on television. Eventually, larger changes will have to happen for Bobby and Travis in order to maintain the integrity of both themselves as characters and Cougar Town as a whole. But that time will come. Eventually. Life takes time to evolve, and with a two-season order already guaranteed, the show has the time to let events take their natural course.
- Tonight’s title card gag: “I got hired on Cougar Town and they only let me write these. My name’s Donny. Hi, Mom.” I wonder if that’s Donald from Fringe!
- I’ll let you, the readers, decide if Laurie’s monologue about toast or the one insisting “Don’t look a gift whore in the mouth” was the superior piece of dialogue. It’s too close to call for me.
- Jules Cobb never finished What’s Love Got To Do With It?
- While I think Josh Hopkins’ impressions of Dan Byrd and Brian Van Holt are serviceable, his impression of Bob Clendenin is freakin’ scary in its accuracy.
- Ellie and Jules’ series-long hints at eventually running away together continue tonight, although if it never happens again, I think I could live with that.
- New drinking rule (for those legal to do so): Drink every time Ellie yells, “Change approved!”
- Andy thinks “Wrath of Khan” is the name of a person, not a movie. But maybe Ellie can approve that change?
- “Please don’t make me write books about child wizards. I’m not gonna be very good at it.” No line that silly should have that much pathos. But Brian Van Holt is just that good sometimes.
- While much of this season probably plays fine to newbies to the series, I can imagine a lot of furrowed brows during the greenscreen-enhanced closing credits. But man, that was funny all the same. (Ron Mexico has the heart of a lion, but the dong of a whale! And he’s charming enough to cohost The View!)