The likeability of the characters on Cougar Town isn’t something to be taken for granted. On one hand, some that have sampled the show despite its misleading title find the interactions between the principals borderline offensive. “Hang-out” comedies largely depend on the audience’s love of the ragtag group assembled onscreen to engage in weekly misadventures. (If you don’t like the friends of Happy Endings, just to name an example, there’s little else to really grab onto when watching that show.) Cougar Town is no different in this regard. Where it differs from other hang-out shows is when it examines just how likeable the Cul-de-Sac Crew is supposed to be.
Take Jules, for example. The season première was all about teaching newcomers to the show about how she’s the center around which the entire group revolves, despite her more than occasional lapses into insane behavior. But Jules also has a borderline unhealthy obsession with Travis that sometimes moves from “relatable” to “seriously, maybe someone should intervene”. Back in season two’s episode “Free Fallin’”, Jules and Grayson actually make out while the latter impersonates Travis, and it’s a move that is both terrifically funny yet also pretty horrifying. Cougar Town isn’t a show that wants to psychoanalyze its characters In Treatment-style, but there’s something there that the show occasionally unearths and pushes Jules’ overall likeability.
Take Grayson as another example. He’s someone that has grown as a person within the group but also maintains his distance from its members. He’s narcissistic to the point of calling his chest “The Truth,” but he also bristles at jokes made at the expense of his sexuality. In spite of writing songs with lyrics that seemingly indicate the contrary, one small joke about his “beauty regimen” sends him spiraling off into the land of overcompensation.
While you’re at it, also take Ellie, who serves as the most sarcastic member of the Cul-de-Sac Crew, as well as the person least likely to actually stay in a group this long in real life. As part of a comedic cog, she works well. But there are times in which the return on investment for her presence within the group is called into question. Hell, there are times when her marriage to Andy, often held up as the pinnacle of relationship bliss within the world of the show, seems like something the show needs to continue rather than something that seems believable when placed into the real world.
I bring up all of these questions not to suddenly question to viability of Cougar Town, but demonstrate how often Cougar Town questions the viability of its own show. “I Need To Know” wrestles with these issues, and the results are as messy as the questions themselves. It’s funny to see Tom’s cat go feral after the crew forgets to feed Snowball while he’s on vacation in Cancun. But this episode deals head-on with the self-importance that makes the leads’ collective memory loss possible in the first place.
Those inward-facing journeys form tonight’s three plots. After a “grown-up date” with Travis, Jules freaks out when he doesn’t call her for over a week after she finally does away with mandatory Family Nights. After the three adult men all grow Tom Selleck moustaches, Grayson worries the new clientele at his bar thinks that he’s gay. After constant frustration over Andy leaving his socks on the floor, Ellie starts treating her husband like a dog in order to get him to behave in the way she wants.
While stemming from the most problematic character flaw, Jules’ storyline with Travis manages to land the most successfully. Most children of broken homes have one parent that is slightly easier to deal with on a constant basis. (Since I am one of those children, and since it’s possible they read these reviews even though they don’t watch the show, I’ll just say I’m the exception to this trend and move on.) Travis spends most of each episode exasperated by both Jules and Bobby, but it makes sense that he would voluntarily spend more time with his father than his mother. The episode works slightly too hard to make Travis a dick before revealing his true motivations, but the resolution keeps with this season’s early work toward acknowledging the different interpersonal dynamics at work. Last week, Ellie handed Grayson the metaphorical torch to keep Jules happy. Here, Jules and Travis find a way toward common ground without the arbitrary enforcement of Family Night to keep him coming around.
The other two plots feature funny moments but more suspect work around the fringes. Cougar Town as a whole traverses in gay-themed humor on a semi-regular basis, and while it sounds PC to call it on those tendencies, I’m not sure this is the show’s funniest vein to mine. Season one’s “Counting On You” introduced the concept of a “gay trap”, which led to a number of running gags that seemed to imply that being gay was something for these men to be embarrassed about. Tonight, the jokes center on Grayson’s slight homophobia as a character flaw, which is far better than trying to “catch” straight men acting gay. Grayson is clearly in the wrong here, and the episode doesn’t pretend otherwise. But the broadly-drawn way in which this episode goes about proving that doesn’t stand up with its more finely-tuned look at the relationships between the core characters.
In terms of those core characters, having Ellie treat Andy like a dog makes sense for both parties. Ellie enjoys manipulation, and Andy by and large enjoys being manipulated. The former wants things to go her way, and the latter is happy to be along for the ride. But once the initial gag is established, there is little room for the storyline to move. Ian Gomez’s confused look upon the first iteration of the interaction is comic gold, and seeing him shake off a swig of beer like a St. Bernard having just come in from the rain is why animated GIFs were invented. But the ultimate reason for Ellie doing this (she was happy to find a way to get Andy to do something without having to be mean) felt shoehorned in. Characters on Cougar Town constantly grow. But this doesn’t feel like growth so much as an excuse. Of all the characters on the show, Ellie feels the most “complete”, which may be why it’s so hard to accept tonight’s resolution as something that will actually carry forth going forward. That doesn’t mean it can’t. But more than likely, we’ll see Ellie’s claws come out around the time that poor, feral Snowball’s claws will.
- This week’s title card gag: “The letters in Cougar Town can be rearranged to spell Taco Rug Now (which also makes no sense).”
- Oh hai, super cute girl that Travis brought home to watch Game Of Thrones. I don’t believe we’ve met. And since Travis called you “Not Laurie” at one point, I’m guessing I never will.
- “This show has so much butt sex!” sounds stolen from one of The A.V. Club’s Game Of Thrones reviews. Or more accurately, the comments. Still!
- “I wanna be friends with benefits… I didn’t use that right, did I?” Lord in heaven, no you didn’t, Jules.
- Everything is funnier with a moustache. If we didn’t know it before, then we learned it tonight.
- “Zooey Descha-hell-no!” feels like something someone should have said earlier in recorded history. So thank you, Laurie, for correcting this.
- “I’m aware of that behavior, yes.” That might have been Gomez’s best line reading in the history of the show. (“Come on!”s are excluded from consideration here.)
- Joshua Hopkins’ Sam Elliot impression is downright eerie. In the first season, Cougar Town incorporated the silly songs Hopkins sang on the lot into his character. I’m guessing he’s been doing enough impressions in between takes to warrant another new characteristic.