What makes Tom Gazelian tick? I’m not sure that’s the most pressing question on the lips of any Cougar Town fan, but now that the show’s in its fourth season, it’s in a position many shows have found themselves at similar points in their run: Needing to look outside the core cast in order to mine story. We only learned Tom’s last name around this time last season, when his medical background became a key part of the episode “Lover’s Touch.” But Tom himself wasn’t fleshed out in that episode. Rather, that installment served primarily to demonstrate how little the Cul-De-Sac Crew knew about him. It’s a year later, and we’re really not that much closer, even after an episode ostensibly meant to shine a light on the character.
“I Should Have Known It” is the weakest episode this season thus far, even if there’s plenty to enjoy on a micro level. But on a big-picture level? Everything is broad in ways the show so often avoids. There have been hints here and there this season that changes offseason (new network, new showrunner) had slightly bled into frame. But these inconsistencies weren’t problematic. Assigning “blame” (which really is the wrong word here) to anyone in particular was silly. Cougar Town, like any show, needs room to grow, expand, and occasionally go down certain paths to see if anything interesting emerges. But tonight’s endeavor goes down paths that suggest regression, not progression. For a show so committed to the ways people enable growth in one another, that’s a slight shame.
Again, this isn’t a catastrophically bad episode. But the volume on everything is turned up to 11, leaving little in the way of subtlety. The idea that Tom might find a woman that would give him purpose beyond standing outside Jules’ window is a strong one. But the fact that Jessica—the woman with a purse so big it could be the mother of Jules’ purse—isn’t a character so much as a plot device. Worse, that device doesn’t put Tom front and center, but rather on the periphery of the episode. We see him through the eyes of Jules and Laurie, and while they are intentionally designed as unreliable narrators, they are also proven right in assuming that Jessica is just a gold digger looking to dig into Tom’s deep pockets.
Look, shows can tell the stories they want. But the choice to have Jessica actually be a conniving woman and not someone who sees something in Tom no one else can is the least interesting way to proceed. Again: This isn’t Tom Town. (Jesus, that show would be sad. And creepy. And feature many “Dirty Nap” montages.) So I’m not saying the show had to subvert Jules’ expectations in order to make this episode better. But I am saying that the episode would have opened up more interesting avenues for all involved had it chosen to make Tom a viable romantic partner.
Not only would that flesh out his character, but also would have forced the Cul-de-Sac Crew to evaluate their treatment of him over the years. It’s all played for laughs, and Lord knows Grayson’s impression of Tom is so eerie that I can’t tell the two apart when I close my eyes. But Cougar Town at its strongest also rips back the veneer of its playfulness and occasionally draws blood in the process. As a consequence, welcoming Tom into the crew at the end of the episode feels unearned. What should have been a seismic moment in the show’s run feels perfunctory, because everything that precedes it is a live-action cartoon. The show’s overall success doesn’t depend on Tom being anything more than he already is. Episodes like this aren’t pauses in the action, but a chance to deepen an already deep fictional world. Cheers worked because we not only knew everyone’s name, but also what made them tick. We’re still only halfway there with Tom. Until this episode aired, I was more or less okay with that. After it? Less so.
The other two plots tonight don’t miss the mark as much as the central one, but are fairly forgettable. Ellie’s attempts to teach Bobby manners is a reverse of last season’s plot involving Bobby trying to teach Ellie how to surf. After seeing the heights of Bobby Cobb last week, it’s disappointing to see a man who hasn’t learned much in the ways of culinary competence since “A One Story Town”’s breadbowl debacles. The highlight of this plot consists of a scene between Ellie and Travis, when both attack each other over Bobby’s behavior but realize they are both terrified for the man’s future. Future progress for Tom isn’t in the cards, but it does feel like the show is planting seeds for a major change in Bobby’s life this season.
The “Rule Of Four” storyline is pure Cougar Town, and it feels strange that the writers never came up with this one before. Simply put: Lifestyle changes among the seven core members can be enforced if four people vote in favor of the change. Grayson, who always seems perplexed by everyone else’s laissez-faire attitude about reality, gets annoyed that he has to take off his “lie shirt” and greet Jules and Ellie with overenthusiastic praise just because the ladies (plus Travis) deem it so. He tends to put up when the meanings of words and phrases (such as “junk in the trunk”) get altered, but tends to draw the line when it comes to having to actually change his life to fit into the bubble reality of the group’s world.
Sometimes, though, those bubbles have to burst. And while fans of the show enjoy the camaraderie of the Cul-De-Sac Crew, neither its members nor the show pretend these people are perfect. Accepting Tom into the group really takes no effort on their part, and evolves from a scenario in which Jules and Laurie spy on Tom primarily out of selfishness rather than sympathy. (If Jessica had never insulted them in the first place, there’s no way Jules gets her comfy shoes to head out and spy on them.) Not every episode has to show these characters change on a fundamental way. But an episode that presents such a moment, and then runs screaming away from it, represents a disappointment. Sure, there are lots of laughs tonight. But there’s usually so much more to this show, which is why it’s beloved by its fans in the first place.
- This week’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. Donny made the title cards about him, so he’s gone now.”
- A scary number of people in Florida know the Latin Kings’ gang hug.
- In terms of the show’s ability to coin catch phrases, “lie shirt” ranks low on the creative totem pole.
- “Oh sure, she bends over… shows him Franklin AND Bash!” Great. Laurie almost ruined breasts with that line.
- “Hey, you still have a kid?” I love it when the show has characters speak like people in comment threads.
- I’m a sucker for a good pop-culture reference, but the extended Pulp Fiction sequence feels… off. I bought everyone playing The Perfect Storm as organic extensions of whom they were. But this just felt like something funny on paper rather than a lived-in sequence Ellie, Jules, and Laurie would enact.
- Tom writes Cul-De-Sac fanfiction, because of course he does.
- “Where do you hide a purse that big?” “Maybe we’re inside it!” Maybe we’re all inside it, Jules.