One of the best ways to tell if TV comedy is healthy is whether or not there are a nice, solid number of shows at the B-level of quality thriving in the genre. These aren't shows that are absolutely spectacular, but they're reliable laugh generators, with generally solid casts and fine writing. Think of last decade, when comedy was pretty healthy, and the fact that there were shows as diverse in everything but their good-not-greatness as Spin City, Just Shoot Me, 3rd Rock from the Sun and Grace Under Fire (I suspect listing at least one of those as good-not-great will see me pilloried, but hang with me here). These last few years, we've pretty much had ... The New Adventures of Old Christine. And occasionally whatever weird dramedy Showtime had on the air. It's one thing to have a handful of truly great comedies and then a few truly bad ones. It's quite another to have a bumper crop that leaves shows that would have been on top ten lists just a few years earlier getting shrugged off as merely competent.
Right now, we have a huge number of really great TV comedies. You have your Parks and Recreations, your Modern Families, your Communities, your old stalwarts, even your Glees (if you swing that way). But we also have a surprisingly high number of really solid TV comedies that never make that next step up but are still reliably entertaining. I'm thinking, here, of shows like the aforementioned Old Christine, like ABC's increasingly entertaining The Middle, like The Big Bang Theory. And I'm thinking, first and foremost, of the latest show from Bill Lawrence, king of B-level TV that maybe doesn't fill you with passion but definitely keeps you coming back from week to week. And, honestly, that Cougar Town has turned into a reliable a show as it is surprises me a little, just as I'm sure it surprises a lot of other people who wrote it off based solely on the name.
The big danger in Cougar Town was always that it was going to be the show this Salon.com review writes it off as being - a big, goofy show about how middle-aged women trying to have sex are so darn wacky. But there was always an element of sadness at the center of the show that kept it grounded, a sense that all involved knew that the story wasn't just about older women having sex. It was about people who are facing the fact that they're not getting any younger, people who are figuring out what kind of life they want to lead as they head into their later years. It was also about a woman who never had a youth and desperately tried to recapture all of that by having one in her 40s.
Plenty of the early episodes of Cougar Town were fairly disjointed. An occasionally winning Courtney Cox performance occasionally went too far and pushed over into outright camp, as though she were playing to a studio audience only she could see or hear (though I like to imagine Courtney Cox is like this always). The show's tone veered uncomfortably close to "Older women having sex are stupid! No one should love them!" And too often, it felt like the show's true comic voice belonged with all of the male characters, a death knell for a show that purports to mostly be about women.
But as the season has gone on, Cougar Town has found its voice and has created a world that's just fun to hang out in. Lawrence's shows always have that feeling of the setting and characters being such good fun that the viewer almost doesn't care if the story is kind of hackneyed or if some of the elements of the series aren't working as well as they once did. The guy's a master at figuring out ways to create TV worlds that you want to spend time in, and he's rapidly turning the little suburban subdivision Cougar Town is set in into the outdoor equivalent of Scrubs' Sacred Heart Hospital.
But Cougar Town has also taken its time to build the relationships between all of the characters, coming closer and closer to the sitcom Holy Grail of having a bunch of characters, who all have sufficiently different relationships with each other. (To my mind, the best show ever at this was Newsradio.) The relationships between Cox's Jules and her son, Travis, or her ex-husband, Bobby, or her obviously-meant-for-her neighbor, Grayson, are all drawn with a goofy emotional honesty and heart that Lawrence is well known for (and it's worth pointing out here that much of the show's charm derives from the skills of co-creator Kevin Biegel, as well).
Take tonight's episode, for example, which saw Travis losing his virginity to his girlfriend, Bobby and Jules coming together for an ill-advised fling and Laurie's gradual horror at the knowledge that she'd slept with Grayson, Jules' "someday" guy (though that didn't stop her from sleeping with him again, of course). All of these stories started out kind of silly and crass and then gradually became surprisingly sweet. It's as though Cougar Town starts out every episode being exactly the kind of show you think it's going to be based on the pilot (just a little smutty) and then proves you wrong as it heads into the denouement.
Tonight's final moments, a long montage of the various couples talking with each other about What Their Relationships Really Mean, for example, took as their impetus a nicely written monologue from Ellie, delivered to her husband, Andy, as they lay in bed together (fully clothed, mind you) about how much just having him around relaxes her, makes her feel normal and good and safe. It's an expression of a kind of love that you don't really see on TV that often - the kind of love that springs up between two people who are so utterly comfortable with each other that they don't really foresee a time when that won't be the case. As much as Cougar Town is a show about recapturing some sort of lost youth, it's also a show that's very much about figuring out a way to get old without losing what it is that makes you happy, and in Jules' quest to find that, the other characters manage to reflect on their own journeys.
But maybe my favorite thing about Cougar Town is that it's evolved into a show about an ad hoc family, a group of people who are always looking out for each other, even though it's not necessarily in their best interests. I love TV shows about communities, the ways we come together to form them, even when we're not necessarily sure why we're doing so. Cougar Town isn't really philosophical about why these people are so good to each other. It just treats it as a given that they will be. And even when the show is being too silly or when Cox's performance is pushed just a hair too far, that's the sort of thing that will keep me coming back. It's the sweetest damn show you ever did see about learning what it means to only find yourself at 40.