One of the things that draws me to the sitcoms of Bill Lawrence is the fact that there are actual stakes involved. On Spin City (not my favorite show ever but bear with me), what happens could have a bearing on the operations of New York City and affect people's lives. On Scrubs, the stakes are often literally life and death, despite all of the goofy sight gags and silly cutaways. The trend in comedy since the rise of Seinfeld has been to make the stakes really, really small. The best sitcoms of the last two decades have often been about stuff that really only matters to the characters on the show and doesn't have much in the way of wide-ranging implications. This can be very funny - I mean, who's going to say Seinfeld isn't funny? - but it also means that most sitcoms end up being about how the husband forgot his wife's anniversary or how two of the friends who hang out together fall in love. Compared to something in a '70s sitcom - where people could have heart attacks or confront the political issues of the day - it's tempting to write much of today's comedy off as deliberately small-scale.
Lawrence usually takes aim at bigger things. Yet his latest show - co-created with Kevin Biegel - is all about pretty small scale stuff. Tonight's episode of Cougar Town revolves around a kid going off to college and a couple trying to figure out how to tell stories about their baby without irritating their friends (and each other). There's nothing of earth-shattering importance in there. What Lawrence and Biegel have done is take these issues and made them so important to the characters that the small-scale stories end up being stories with big stakes for these people. Travis is only going to go off to college once. Stan is only going to take his first step once. Miss that moment or screw it up, and you spend the rest of your life regretting it.
I think it's useful to look at Cougar Town and contrast it with another very good comedy that just happens to share an hour with it: Modern Family. On Modern Family, the creators aim for a sense of the universal. The stories are about such tiny, tiny little things as a father trying to teach his daughter how to use an entertainment center or a baby saying "mama" for the first time. The series' approach is to look at these things in detail, the better to suggest to the audience that, hey, this life is just like your life. That prompts a laugh of recognition, and in the best Modern Family episodes, it's compounded by a twist of the specific: I recognize this situation, but I'm also amused by how these specific characters react to it. (The Office, filmed in a very similar style to Modern Family, has also often used this style of storytelling over the years.)
Cougar Town, however, starts from the specific and moves toward the universal. Travis leaving for college is a HUGE DEAL to Jules because she doesn't quite know how to be without him, and she's still not sure how to define herself outside of being a mother. So her last few days with him at home turn into a frantic attempt to cram years and years of parent-child relationship into a few hours. Frankly, it gets a little creepy, watching her try to hang on to her baby boy and seemingly return him to the womb, especially when his father said goodbye to his son so effectively. But what Lawrence, Biegel, and their writers do so effectively is establish just how much these things matter to the characters, making their crazy behavior seem more relatable. Jules is, essentially, coming up against the end of the world as she knows it. What's she going to do? She's going to go a little nuts.
Where Cougar Town excels is in pushing past the specific and moving it into the universal. The show asks us to recognize the characters first, but then asks us to recognize ourselves in their behavior. Thus, Travis running off to college starts out as a story about a mom and her son trying to figure out how to say goodbye to each other and unexpectedly turns the corner at the end to become almost as much about how you said goodbye to YOUR mom when you left home for the last time. (When my mom dropped me off at college, the last thing she said to me - the deepest words of wisdom she could impart - were "Be sure to put those pears in the fridge, so they don't get mushy.") Similarly, the Ellie and Andy story starts in a place that's very much about the characters - who both don't terribly want to get labeled as the kinds of parents who only talk about their kids (in a very funny bit of meta-commentary on how many sitcoms get subsumed by cute kid plots) but also both want so desperately to share cute stories about their son - but by the end, it's a story about how when you're a parent, all of those moments you got sick of hearing about from your friends become magical and real and new. Nearly everybody takes a first step. It's different when it's your kid doing it. (Another show that excels at this specific-to-universal gambit? Community.)
"Let Yourself Go" isn't perfect. The levels of creepiness the show takes Travis and Jules to push a little far for even the most staunch fans of cringe comedy, I think (to say nothing of how weird it is to have a cringe-y storyline like that suddenly dropped into the lap of a sweet, winning show like this). To the show's credit, the characters comment at length on just how crazy Jules is, but that still doesn't make her craziness any less horrifying. This is, obviously, part of the point, but there were places where it got pushed too far. At the same time, all of this comes in the middle of an episode that features such warm moments as that leaving for college sequence, such funny subplots as the one where the neighbor thinks he's seen a ghost baby, and such casual brilliance as the simultaneously understated and over-the-top performance of Busy Phillips. (I promise I'll stop praising her every week one of these weeks, but, man, she's great.) (Update: This paragraph originally identified the neighbor as being played by Jeff Lewis, when he was played by Bob Clendenin instead.)
Comedy is usually only funny if its relatable on some level. Even the most bizarre, absurdist show you can think of - let's say Tim and Eric - starts from a relatively mundane place (in this case, the weird ephemera that lurks at the edges of the TV programming grid). What Lawrence has always excelled at is taking that relatability and then building very specific people to carry out the sorts of storylines any of us can recognize. Again, it comes back to stakes. The people on Cougar Town may not be saving the lives of very sick patients or making sure the trains run on time, but they're trying to find their way toward being better, happier, more grown-up people. And in its own way, those are the highest stakes of them all.
- "All right, fine. I made it. But I used his little hands like he was a little puppet."
- "I ate dead baby lasagna?" "And you loved it!"
- "You should start a blog and share your cracker lingo with the world."
- "Plastic wrap is, like, 93 and a half percent effective."
- "It's making my mouth dry, but I can't look away."
- "It's a combination of self-doubt and lavender."