The act of suddenly doubling up episodes in the run of a series is a curious one. Sometimes, it reeks of a network trying to burn off episodes of a show it will probably cancel. Shows like the late Bent came with a pre-affixed warning due to NBC’s bizarre decision to air all six episodes in three weekly back-to-back blocks. ABC is currently trying to sell its decision to double-dip Happy Endings on Friday as a “Happy Hour.” But we know this isn’t the happiest of hours, since the network decided to air its final four episodes of Cougar Town in back-to-back slots with a two-week break between those hour-long deployments. TBS luckily swooped in to pick up the show for a fourth (and now fifth) season, but there’s still something fishy about a double dose of new episodes.
All of this is a way to say that the back-to-back episodes that end the fourth season of Cougar Town are the happy exception that proves the rule. “Don’t Fade On Me” and “Have Love Will Travel” are of a piece with one another, and mark the third season in a row in which a two-part vacation centric episode ended the show. Season two’s “Something Good Coming” saw the crew go to Hawaii to save Travis, season three’s “My Life”/”Your World” featured a Napa Valley-centric excursion, and tonight saw a Bahamas trip postponed in order to allow Chick to achieve his life-long dream of visiting Los Angeles. While the amount of anger directed at The City of Angels suggests absolutely no one working on Cougar Town actually enjoys living there, tonight’s two episodes had a warm heart and a romantic streak as long as a traffic jam on the 405.
I’ve been noting that the last third of the season (with the exception of last week’s “The Criminal Mind”) seemed to have Chick’s illness in the background of every single storyline. That analysis has been met with some incredulity in the comments, and that’s fine. Certainly nothing in the actual text of the show supported that claim. But while it’s perfectly okay to simply sit back, laugh at some pop-culture references, and move on with your life, I thought it was more interesting to think about the show’s narrative as one suddenly changed by the introduction of impermanence. Even if Chick wasn’t knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door, the very idea of the Cul-de-Sac Crew as an entity that could be undone by something as undramatic yet unyielding as the accumulation of everyday occurrences is a strong way to keep the core of the show intact while also introducing the notion that each cup of coffee in Jules’ kitchen is a gift.
Again: This is a lot to read into a show that makes jokes involving the “Labia Tarpits.” But the reintroduction of Chick’s health issues (we learn tonight he has Alzheimer’s) is both a way for the show to integrate the ideas established back in “Make It Better” and simultaneously cut through all the superfluous, standard-sitcom aspects that have hurt the lesser episodes this season. There’s an ache in nearly every scene, whether it concerns something as heavy Chick’s health, something as romantic the future of the Laurie/Travis romance, or even something as silly as Bobby’s relationship with Dog Travis or Andy’s concerns over his ethnicity. I’d argue that tonight’s two episodes work as well as they do not because this ache is a break from what makes Cougar Town normally work. Rather, I’d argue it’s precisely because of this ache that Cougar Town achieves its greatest heights.
One need only consider Courteney Cox when she’s in the same scene as Ken Jenkins and when he’s not onscreen with her. I don’t think Cox is bad when Jules isn’t interacting with Chick. But there’s a subtle yet seismic thing that occurs when the two are paired up. Both from an acting perspective and a character perspective, the two bring out the best in each other. Jules’ eccentricities don’t dissipate, but they are grounded within a reality that makes her actions more recognizable and more relatable. She still guzzles wine from inappropriately large glassware. She still doesn’t understand pop-culture references. She’s still the strong yet needy leader of the Cul-de-Sac Crew. But Chick’s presence tethers all of that to an emotional center that expands what Jules can be as the center of a television show. Chick gives depth not only Jules, but to Cougar Town as a whole.
Tonight’s two-part finale wisely avoids making Chick’s diagnosis acutely tragic (he’s losing his memory, but could be around for another decade) while giving it enough gravitas to make the Tippi Hedren-centric storyline something to root for. If you follow any type of entertainment site (and if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you do), you might have seen the announcement a few months back that Hedren would appear this season. But even if you knew that, I imagine it was a warming sight to see her appear onscreen to fulfill one of Chick’s lifelong fantasies. Jules’ wish to give him a memory he can’t forget grounds every eccentric aspect of the plot to put the pair together. It’s easy to wonder why Hedren might agree to be part of this wish fulfillment; on the other hand, the episodes work so well on an emotional level that I don’t give a shit. Once the show gets you to invest in the happiness of its characters, it’s easy to glide over the specifics if the emotions it elicits rings true.
I’d say the same works for the Laurie/Travis material, which ties into Chick’s journey (especially in terms of how “fate” works in this world) yet felt on occasion like second-fiddle material. That’s too bad, since the will-they/won’t-they of this pair has been going on for so long that having its resolution occur within the shadow of Chick’s storyline is a bit unfair. If the series of failed kisses had played out over two weeks, I wonder if they would have played differently. Over the course of a single viewing, however, the sheer amount of roadblocks thrown their way definitely made me wonder if Cougar Town was going to delay the seemingly inevitable once again. And while I’m a fan of these two being together, it’s all too easy for me to wonder if they should have waited. I understand why the show did what it did, especially since these episodes were filmed long before any announcement of season five was made. And there’s certainly plenty of material to mine now that another season will happen. (A shopping trip to Target to buy Laurie underwear seems like a given.) The connection with Chick’s story about meeting his wife justified its thematic inclusion here. I just wanted a little more room for these two to be the center of a storyline that has gone on for three years.
Still, that’s a small nitpick. And while I’ve gone on and on about the deep, heavy, emotional aspects of these two episodes, it should also be noted they’re damn funny. There have been plenty of installments this season in which the basic building blocks of Cougar Town were onscreen, but somehow they didn’t play the same. Sometimes the show played broader than normal. Other times it played meaner than usual. There have been many highs, but it’s been a very uneven season over all. To be fair, aside from its third season, Cougar Town has always been hit-or-miss. So that’s not new to this—or any other half-hour—show. But tonight’s two episodes found so many direct comedic hits that I found myself laughing as often as I found myself reaching for the tissues.
The amount of things I found funny would take up far too much space, but the overall impact is that of a car that had slight engine trouble for a while but suddenly felt brand-new after a quick tune-up. Whether it’s Tom himself doubting if he should be allowed to go on vacation with the group, Riggs’ increasingly personal reveals to Dog Travis, Ellie’s sneak-attack “Change approved!”, Grayson’s self-conscious attitudes about his acting career, the LGBT sandwich, Ellie’s pronunciation of “lovers,” The Latino Connection, Tabby Hedren, the “Eastwood/Soup” festival, Bobby’s hatred of The Wire, or the laundry list of how people see Andy (a “bisexual bowler,” among other things), most everything comedically works tonight. But perhaps my favorite moment wasn’t the name of Travis’ graphic-novel in which he battles a robot for Laurie’s affection (The Misadventures Of Tommy Saturn), but her laugh-filled reaction to it. That reaction is the kind of thing Cougar Town used to have all the time, back when its editing style used to hold onto scenes juuuust a little longer than other shows might. That style gave the show an overall looseness that ended up working in its favor. Episodes weren’t flabby, but they did betray a ramshackle quality that suggested those involved just enjoyed the moments portrayed onscreen as much as those watching from home. It’s the type of thing that normally ends up on the cutting room floor, but somehow dignifies Cougar Town as a whole.
Who knows if that little moment means that type of old-school approach will be more prevalent in season five. All we can do is enjoy this finale for now and look forward to another season in 2014. Chick’s condition won’t majorly affect the show going forth, as Jules notes at the halfway point of tonight’s double dose. But Cougar Town can’t overtly ignore it, either. It’s not just about Laurie and Travis figuring out if they work as a couple. It’s about Bobby realizing a golf cart shouldn’t be his sole means of transportation. It’s about Ellie and Andy and Jules and Grayson being in stable marriages that nevertheless must change in order to survive. And it’s about all the core characters on this show cherishing each glass of wine, each inside joke, and most importantly, the laughs that each inspires in the others.
- Tonight’s title card gags: “Welcome to Cougar Town. Remember when we wanted to change the title? Ah, good times. Thanks for sticking with us!” “Hi Howard Stern Fans. Welcome to Cougar Town. Bababooey.” The latter gag comes from the fact that Howard Stern limo driver/bodyguard Ronnie Mund plays the transvestite (as well as his/her brother) in the second episode. Also in that last episode? Comedian Rob Delaney as the tour bus guide, who has three or four followers on Twitter last time I checked.
- The musician at the end? Joshua Radin. Now you know.
- Shirley Jones appears again briefly tonight in order to get a rundown of all the words/phrases whose meanings have been altered by the Cul-de-Sac Crew. More of her in season five, please!
- R.I.P. Big Lou. Welcome to the gang, Big Tippi.
- The AutoTrader ad tonight made me long for the subtle days of Diet Dr. Pepper.
- “No one’s even made me a stalker video that I didn't have to see in a courtroom first. I love it.” Romance, Laurie-style.
- “I know Tippi. And you’re 10 minutes late to cut my grass.” Nice to see Lou Diamond Phillips again as part of The Latin Connection.
- “Morally ambiguous, my butt!” God, I hope this quote ends up on future iterations of The Wire box sets.
- “Boob Mountain” is probably the most popular ride in Adult Disney.
- Pre-plane plane drinks sounds like a recipe for being arrested.
- “Good God, I can land a moment.” That you can, Chick. That you can.
- Thanks for reading these reviews all season. I have wine and Werther’s for all of you as gifts.