“Make It Better” was, for about the first two-thirds, a pretty good episode of Cougar Town. It wasn’t a classic installment of the episode, but it was playing some solid character beats, pairing up people in interesting ways, and continuing some of the story threads that have dotted the landscape of the fourth season. It was all enjoyable, and I laughed a bunch. So far, so good. Then, in the final 10 minutes, shit got real, Ken Jenkins broke my heart in a hundred places, and all of a sudden, we were in new territory altogether for the show as a whole.
Jenkins has been a reliably strong character in the show’s repertoire since his introduction in the second season. (That episode, “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” made my pre-season list of Cougar Town installments that were necessary to understand how the show as a whole works.) Not only is Jenkins a strong actor, and not only is Chick a strong character, but the shades that Chick brings out of Jules (and, by proxy, Jenkins brings out of Courteney Cox) cannot be overstated in terms of their overall importance to the show. She’s simply different around him, plain and simple. Now, it shouldn’t come as that big of a surprise that a father-daughter dynamic might bring out different shadings for Jules. But Chick’s occasional appearances on the show make the contrast that much starker. We’re so used to seeing her as the leader of the Cul-de-Sac crew that it’s hard to imagine her as someone who is afraid of losing her father.
And honestly, we weren’t afraid of losing Chick until tonight, either. At least I wasn’t. The idea of mortality inside the world isn’t exactly commonplace, with the explorations of those in their 40s less about what’s to come and more about what is no longer available. (Ellie and Andy don’t want to go clubbing every night, but they aren’t exactly kept awake at night by the thoughts of AARP cards arriving in the mail.) So I never doubted Chick’s story about falling off his horse, even while wondering how his aversion toward being cared for by Jules squared with him showing up at her doorstep. It seemed like slightly sloppy plotting, until the episode (written by Rachel Specter & Audrey Wauchope and directed by Cox) pulled the rug out from under everyone by revealing the true nature of the injury.
For a show that often takes place in a vacuum, one impervious to social or economic change, time suddenly seems really fucking important to many of the characters on this show. Not only did Chick fall for the first time when attempting to mount his horse, but we learn that his memory is going as well. Earlier jokes about Jules hating open-ended narratives such as those in Inception suddenly take on new meaning, as the uncertainty of her father’s future dovetails with Jules’ uncertainty about the future happiness of Travis. She can endure the pain of a kidney stone, because that passes with little to no harm done in a short amount of time. But there’s so much more pain on the horizon, and what kills her is that she’s unable to predict how any of this will all play out.
Wade, by contrast, sees the writing on the wall much more quickly than Laurie does. In some ways, I don’t like how quickly the show introduced him into the everyday fold, only to send him off into the sunset almost immediately thereafter. Not only has he brought a unique energy to the show, but he also functioned in the vital outsider role, able to comment upon the activity that the Crew take for granted. At the same time, points to the show for not playing out the same basic narrative beats for a month until Wade snaps. Chick tries to insist that Jules not “waste” her life tending to him. But no one has to tell Wade to not waste time in a relationship that will go nowhere. So it makes sense that he would pack up and leave before he and Laurie barely had time to fight about who got which sock drawer. He might have stayed and argued about the merits of sex robots for years, if he thought Laurie weren’t going to spend that time keeping one eye on him and one eye on Travis’ attempts to move on with his life.
The Travis/Grayson/Bobby subplot was perhaps the slightest one, more important for how it affected Laurie during her couples’ date with Andy and Ellie. But I still enjoyed it, not only because Travis thinks being a player involves comparing girls to Gremlins, but because it offered a nice example of Bobby and Grayson co-fathering Travis in ways that didn’t feel competitive but rather complementary. Due to the nature of the relationship histories on the show, the two have always been friendly but also occasionally adversarial. (The season two premiére “All Mixed Up” is a great example of the early dissension between the pair.) The two have now had enough time to figure out each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to best help Travis. At first, Bobby cedes the floor to Grayson, since he has more expertise in being a sleaze. But ultimately, after Travis goes 0-11 in his mack daddy attempts, Bobby suggests that Travis simply being himself will be enough in this post-Laurie age. Luckily, there’s a girl nearby who thinks Ghostbusters backpacks and The Walking Dead are cool, and while I could rail against the fact that no such girl existed on Planet Earth when I was 21, I’ll be the bigger man and give props to Travis in this case.
But ultimately, this is the Chick And Jules episode, with their last scenes so thoroughly dominating my impression of this episode that something as potentially huge as Wade leaving Laurie seems like an afterthought. Historically, Cougar Town opens its seasons with a short arc, then executes a bunch of stand alones, then returns to a second arc to round things out. Tonight saw the start of that second arc, one that seems to bend toward something tragic but also something potentially transformative. I’m not worried that Cougar Town will transform from a hang-out comedy into a deathly serious meditation on mortality. But as a catalyst to force people who normally suffer first-world problems at worst to actively confront who they want to be, what kind of life they want to live, and with whom they want to live it, then this storyline has the potential to elevate this season as a whole as much as that final act lifted the entire episode. We’re entering some new territory for the show, and it will be fascinating to watch it unfold.
- This week’s title gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town: Asking the tough questions about sex robots.”
- “Window Doctor” Tom is a pretty inspired use of the character.
- I want to be able to download “Grease In Space” and make it my ring tone.
- Normally, I would have written 500 words about how “Christa Miller + painkillers = comedy gold.” But there was some serious shit to discuss above. But I am curious about the phonetic spelling of her pronunciation of “dishwasher.”
- The landline running gag was interesting, but it was also dropped without much of a payoff. Seems like an idea that was funny in the writer’s room but was too difficult to extract from the episode when cutting it together.
- “Chicken Broth Or Urine?” sounds like a challenge on the Top Chef that airs in hell.
- All of Bobby’s “playah” tips relate to Matthew McConaughey film roles. Which is awesome.
- Jules telling Chick he still has 40 to 50 years left did me in. That was one of Cox’s finest moments in the series, period.