(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
When Cougar Town defied the odds and earned itself a second life on TBS, my first reaction—after a few celebratory oversized glasses of pinot noir—was wondering how much the show would change in its transition between networks and showrunners. And for the most part this season, I’ve found it’s remained the same show that I love, one that’s been able to keep its balance of emotional growth and running gags. There’s been some terrific moments this season, as we’ve witnessed how guys with mustaches think, weighed the pros and cons of wine spikes, and learned all about the complicated world of the Latin Kings. And since “Between Two Worlds” aired, all I can think is how much I too want to party with Ron Mexico.
At the same time, I do acknowledge that all of the changes behind the scenes have moved the show subtly in a different direction—not necessarily a bad one, but one that indicates a show trying to get its footing. The humor’s been noticeably raunchier as the writers try to figure out how much they can get away with on cable, and the characters have also edged towards broader comedy as Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel have stepped back as showrunners. For the most part it’s been able to iron over these difficulties, though last week’s “Restless” sadly wound up on the wrong end of both developments. Despite that, I didn’t find it to be as problematic as Ryan did because I don’t think it was terribly committed to either of those instances: Grayson having sex with a drugged up Jules was treated solely as a throwaway joke, and the closing scene where Andy gave Ellie the torn up sex coupons was a rare moment that made the couple seem legitimately compatible in their own twisted way.
“Flirting With Time,” however, is an episode thankfully devoid of these dicier questions, asking a much simpler question: How does one get into the Cul-De-Sac Crew? Grayson’s home, now fully repaired from hurricane damage and with ovens free of crows, is on the market, meaning that new neighbors could be entering the picture. However, those neighbors have to run a gauntlet before they can even think about putting an offer on the house, and what a wonderfully in-character gauntlet it is. Andy welcomes them to the neighborhood in an open bathrobe that exposes his “Tobey Maguire,” (“I hate that I know that you named it that,” Jules moans), Bobby drives up in the golf cart recruiting for his militia, and Ellie declares both members of the couple have real pretty mouths.
Needless to say, no offer is made and Grayson angrily collects the contents of everyone’s pockets as compensation—$51 and Bobby’s “treasure map” from Long John Silver’s. The decision for Grayson to abandon his house and move in with Jules drove some good stories last season, and opening it to the rest of the world is sure to produce more. Ryan’s talked at great length about how while the cul-de-sac is an oasis for its residents and their friends, it’s also isolationist to the point of exclusionary—witness how many hurdles Tom had to jump over before they’d even let him in for coffee, and he only lives across the street.
But the identity of any new neighbors will have to wait, as first Jules has to talk about her favorite subject: herself. She argues that they can’t keep judging people who try to move into the neighborhood because of her own experiences, which pushes us into the WABAC Machine to when Jules and Bobby first moved into the neighborhood, all the way back in 2005. (Timeframe is established thanks to the marquee at the theater, which is showing such classic Brian Van Holt vehicles as House Of Wax and Man Of The House.) And it’s a very different Jules and Bobby we meet—a Jules and Bobby that are clearly still in love/lust, driving a rusty pickup truck, sporting white-trash hair for the ages, and both so excitable and loud that a horrified Ellie has to ask if they’re from Planet NASCAR.
Cougar Town has always been a show that’s had an interest in moving its characters forward, so it’s definitely out of character for the show to turn the clock back, but it’s not a move that comes across as the stereotypical gimmick where a sitcom introduces an outlandish past for its characters (case in point, Happy Endings dropping its main characters into The Real World: Sacramento). The show has dropped various stories of Jules growing up poor over the years—usually punctuated by a “cracker alert!” from Ellie—so it’s not beyond the pale that she’d be this outlandish. And she’s still enough like our Jules that it rings true when Ellie cuts her down for being “the lonely, needy girl who pushes her way into people’s lives,” and it rings even truer that she won’t take no for an answer and winds up getting a bare foot slammed in the door.
The flashback structure also works well here because it strikes a balance between past and present, as opposed to being a full “how we met” story with a moral at the end. Jules is so busy explaining how she got into Ellie’s good graces that she falls out of them by letting slip their first big secret: that for all her big talk about having Andy wrapped around her finger, pre-engagement she was the one terrified of losing him. Ellie’s caustic attitude always walks a fine line between being a weapon for the show and a liability, and it’s always rewarding to see moments where the show humanizes her. Moving between past and present heart-to-hearts between Jules and Ellie is an effective tool to show how far both have come (even if Courteney Cox winds up losing her Southern accent when Past Jules becomes more earnest), and the reveal of how Andy and Ellie got engaged goes a long way to washing off some of the ickier moments of “Restless.”
And beyond all that, the flashbacks have the virtue of including some great moments to both reward the audience and add some building blocks for present day. You have the more obvious callbacks, such as Bobby betting Andy that he can throw a penny into a coffee can, only to abandon the idea when “Penny toss!” just isn’t much fun to yell. (Give it six years Bobby—it’ll be huge.) And then you have Laurie’s first appearance in this universe, a fountain fight with her cousin over a Jeff Gordon sweat rag—a deliciously white-trash moment and also the moment where she first met Travis, making their romantic tension even more awkward given that he was barely 14 at the time.
Speaking of Laurie, she’s cut off from the cul-de-sac shenanigans for most of this episode as her boyfriend Wade is back from Afghanistan full-time. While he’s got family up in Minnesota, he’s decided to keep his stay in Florida open-ended, a decision that frightens a Laurie—who’s used to her own space. It’ll be interesting to see how much Cougar Town wants to invest in Wade as a character, as up until this point he’s existed chiefly as an obstacle to the slow-burning Laurie/Travis pairing, someone who triggers Travis’ Selfless Man persona in heartbreakingly hilarious moments like the “Down South” slow dance. Laurie has felt the most noticeably broad this season, as the character is clearly the Cougar Town writers room’s test subject for how adult they can make their content, but her professional journey last year was one of that season’s best arcs, and if they want to take that growth in a personal direction—as the closing scene implies—Busy Philipps is more than capable of running with it.
The idea of connecting to someone else runs strong through “Flirting With Time,” an idea encapsulated in the running gag of the “meet-cute,” motivated by Bobby and Travis’s shared love of such moments like the necklace scene in Pretty Woman. Ellie and Jules didn’t have one particular moment—theirs was a friendship they had to work for—but other characters turn out to have met exactly the same way you’d expect. The meeting between Bobby and Andy is one that befits the epic love between the two, one literally falling into the other’s arms as the music swells, just short of having the red cartoon hearts swelling up around them. Travis views his meet-cute with Laurie as “the moment where destiny itself reached down and tapped us on the shoulder as if to say ‘You two could end up together,’” a matter-of-fact declaration that further cements his crush in unshakeable territory. The gold medal goes to Bobby though, whose story of meeting Dog Travis(!) Lady And The Tramp-style is both a wonderful sight gag and a story that drives the normally unromantic Grayson crazy. Because poor Grayson has none of those moments with Jules, regardless of how much she encourages him the story about borrowing a plunger has some romance.
Maybe they didn’t have a meet-cute like in a romantic film, but in the episode’s final moments, it turns out they had the best one of all when they ran into each other randomly on the street. Even if they didn’t recognize each other years later, it was Grayson who gave her wine and told her that it was good for making new friends, inadvertently giving her the lifeblood that would hold her makeshift family together eight years later. And in an episode so full of memories, “Flirting With Time” pulls off a great trick: making the most important moment the one nobody remembers.
- This week’s title card gag: “This one’s for you, continuity nerds.” So fellow continuity nerds, what was your favorite callback? My favorite was Ellie’s engagement ring reveal serving as a callback to her ring dance from “Fooled Again (I Don’t Like It).”
- Laurie is declared a vagina thesaurus (or vaginasaurus, best dinosaur ever) thanks to her plethora of nicknames: a snooze, a sizzle, a hoo, a Hot Pocket, Bonnie Hunt, a wooly mammoth, No Country For Old Men, The Hurt Locker. I wonder if Jules is aware the latter two are also films.
- I was legitimately surprised to see Tom pop up in the flashbacks. Given the Cul-De-Sac Crew’s selective memory, I was betting money he’d point out in the present every instance where he’d been there and they’d just tuned him out.
- Animated GIFs we need immediately: Laurie slamming her head on the bar and coming up with a bottle cap on her forehead, Bobby catching Andy falling off the roof, Bobby and Dog Travis eating spaghetti.
- Seriously, I just can’t get over how great the meet-cute between Bobby and Dog Travis was, and not just because Dog Travis makes every episode better. It’s the combination of Brian Van Holt’s goofy grin and the conviction in how he delivers the end of the story that sells it.
- Dan Byrd’s expression after the “Aaron” reveal in the closing tag is the best look of stupefied horror I’ve seen on TV this side of Fawlty Towers.
- Ellie was unsurprisingly quite the fearsome attorney in her day. “I used to make judges cry! They called me tiger bitch!” Jules: “Grayson still does.”
- Jules’ first reaction to wine: “I love this stuff! And I need a bigger glass!”