A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were having a discussion about how the best comedies build different relationships between all of the characters. The discussion pertained to Community, where the show is always careful to create completely different dynamics when it has different characters hanging out. A Shirley and Abed storyline is usually wildly different from a Jeff and Britta one, and that extends to pretty much any permutation of characters you can come up with from the eight-person cast. My wife suggested that Cougar Town was in the same league, and I scoffed. Cougar Town had some interesting relationships, but it couldn't pull off, say, a Jules and Andy episode, I suggested. My wife disagreed. She thought the show was heading into the same territory, and she was sure I'd eat my words.
I like to imagine that Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel somehow heard this conversation (which is theoretically possible, since it occurred on my podcast), looked at each other, and proudly exclaimed, "Challenge accepted!" because tonight's episode's main storyline? It was all about Jules and Andy. Now, it was the very most basic kind of storyline you can do about two people who don't have a lot in common. It was pretty much just the "the only thing we have in common is our mutual friend, but let's dance!" story, but Ian Gomez is one of the best actors in the cast, and the show turned it into an elaborate Usual Suspects homage, of all things. Plus, the storyline turned into an examination of just how much Jules might even know about Andy. He's her next door neighbor, and he's married to her best friend, but what does she actually KNOW about him. As it turns out, not a whole lot, and Andy turns this to his advantage to get a little dancing out of the woman. (Apparently, Andy's got moves.)
My most consistent complaint against Cougar Town this season has been that the show introduces what feel like 50 or 60 storylines and then runs out of room to bounce them all off of each other. That wasn't the case last week, where everything elegantly bounced off of the idea of Jules trying to build a relationship with her dad (and everything else tied very nicely into the idea of redefining relationships and/or dressing up with Halloween). I wouldn't say this episode was AS neatly constructed as that one. In particular, the beginning, where the show introduced the three stories it would follow throughout the hour, was just a little cluttered, doing that thing where the show bounces between two or three locations and has way too much character carryover between them. (Travis is at college! No, he's at Jules' house! No, he's on Bobby's boat!) Logically, I can argue to myself that these scenes take place during three different times of the day or that these scenes take place on three different days, but the whip-fast pace of the editing often makes this hard to do. It SEEMS like everything is happening in mere minutes, even though character placement would suggest it's not.
But once all of that was out of the way, the episode settled in and continued the roll the show was on last week. One of my favorite things about Cougar Town is the way it uses space. There are a lot of elements of the show that might work just as well in a multi-camera sitcom, shot before a live, studio audience (heresy, I know!), but that version of the show would lose some of the elements of playing around with the sets. For example, I love whenever Ellie looks over from her house and comments on something going on in Jules' house, like when she was talking to Grayson and Laurie about the rocket ship she'd left as a gift for Grayson. It's a great use of unusual blocking to make a scene funnier. If it's just Ellie walking in and giving that monologue about Grayson and his dad, it would probably still be funny, sure (Christa Miller is a great, great comic actress), but it would lose that extra punch of having Ellie seemingly beam in from another planet to deliver the monologue. Another way the show uses space well: Every scene on Bobby's boat emphasizes the weirdness of the boat being in a parking lot, even if it's just going on in the background.
But what of the storylines themselves? Once it settled into things, I really enjoyed the Jules and Andy storyline. There really IS no reason for these two to be friends, and they wouldn't if not for Ellie. But that doesn't mean that the friendship they've forged isn't somehow real or is so fragile that it would fall apart in the absence of Ellie's presence. (This show has always said that the friendships between these people are stronger than anything, even a crumbling marriage.) Plus, Gomez is a heckuva dancer, and I loved all of the little riffs on Usual Suspects (a movie I only tolerate, but a fun one to pay homage to). The Laurie and Grayson plot didn't have quite as many laughs, that long monologue aside, but it played off a character dynamic that the show has already established as a fun one to go to. (Plus, I liked that Ellie intersected with both of these storylines in interesting ways. She's like the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg of this show, only not a billboard.) Finally, there was Travis and Bobby hanging out on the boat, which was largely an excuse for some goofy physical gags (like water running out of Bobby's nose) but an excuse for funny physical gags.
At this point, it feels like Cougar Town is really hitting its stride. If it can string together four or five more episodes like this in the next few episodes, it could be headed on its way toward being at or near the top of the list of comedies on TV right now (depending on how Parks & Recreation looks when it comes back). It's felt like this season, the show has needed some episodes to work out some unfortunate kinks, but in the last two episodes, it's shown that the sense of fun that permeated the last half of season one is still present in the show. Truth gun to my head, this is going from a show I really enjoy to one of my favorite shows on the air.
- Speaking of the truth gun, another thing I sometimes dislike about this show is the way that it uses weird little devices in each episode and then randomly has them pop up in other contexts. The truth gun, however, was such a useful and novel conceit that I'm sure it will pop up in my own life at one point or another, and I'm sure that's the show's goal with these little devices.
- Using Enrique Iglesias' "Hero" ironically shouldn't work, considering how many times it's been done before, but damned if Cougar Town didn't pull it off.
- I'm reliably informed the very end was an elaborate Spaced homage. I would not know, as I haven't seen Spaced beyond the first two episodes, which I enjoyed but didn't find so life-altering as to immediately continue watching. (Please don't throw TOO much garbage.) That said, as any Peep Show fan will reliably inform you, I know NOTHING about British comedy.
- "I'm gonna put shooting children in the maybe pile."
- "You know what else is a riveting treatise on the human condition? My butt."
- "I'm calling you College now because you go to college."
- "Oh, hot dog."
- "That's for when the rats come."
- "Turns out, his real adventure was raising you."
- "Like a snake that swallowed a volleyball."
- "It is a huge step up from the tub of gumballs you got me for our 10th anniversary."
- "He definitely has a lady in his basement."
- "Only if somebody tells me who put vanity plates on my car that say Tiny Eyes."