Not much of the original concept of Cougar Town is still around for us to point and laugh at and/or kick the corpse of, but there's one element that's been central to both the show as it was and the show as it is: Jules is a woman who went from living in her parents' house to being married to being a mother in very short order, and she doesn't really know who she is as a person outside of her relationships with her family members. When the show started, she was going to go on a voyage of self-discovery that involved sleeping with lots of younger men, and while that show had its moments, it was also almost unbearably crass, a tone that was at odds with the sweetness that was so evident at the show's core. But yeah, it evolved, and it's not the show you wrote off at the start of season one, and the title is awful. We get all of that, and we've been over it before.
But the show hasn't completely abandoned that central idea of Jules discovering herself precisely at the moment when her ties to her other family members are becoming less constraining (I don't imagine it's a total coincidence that her father came up in the season premiere). This is still a show about a woman who's learning to be on her own. It's just less obviously that, because it's a show about how she's learned to be on her own with the support of some wacky friends who just happen to live in her cul de sac. And season two, it would seem, is going to dig even more deeply into those ideas, as major plot points in all three episodes now have dealt with Travis leaving for college and just how poorly Jules takes the idea of being without her son.
A.V. Club contributor Myles McNutt talked in his review of this episode (which I cheated and read early because I knew I wouldn't get to see it until late) about how the episode provides the illusion of change - Travis is leaving for college! - without really changing anything - everybody still hangs out with him. Myles thinks this is a good thing (I think), and I tend to agree. The show is slowly expanding its universe in this season (look at how all of the other houses on the cul de sac are starting to get neighbors and characters we can visit in upcoming episodes), and Travis' college experiences are vital to that. But I also don't want him to not be a part of the ensemble anymore. It's important that Travis and Jules undergo this important test to their relationship, but it's important that it happen in a way that doesn't fundamentally cripple the show. Weird as it is, the Travis and Jules relationship is one of the series' central pillars, and as Gilmore Girls has taught us, a light, wacky comedy can have trouble surviving once part of the pillar goes off to college.
But I'm going to go Myles one better: In addition to creating scenarios where things seem to change but don't really, I think the show presents Jules as an essentially likable character while simultaneously making her supremely unlikable. Pretty much everybody likes hanging out with her - and why not? she's the lead character and she's hot! - up to and including Travis' college friends, but when you scratch the surface and see who she is underneath the manic energy, she's supremely fucked up. In a lot of ways, this shouldn't work, and I suspect it's this central element that still drives a lot of people who don't like the show nuts. Jules is everybody's best friend, but she's also clearly batshit insane, a woman who's having trouble dealing with all of her stuff and getting it out in the open. And does anyone really want to hang out with someone like that, no matter how charming she can be on occasion? (Obviously, so much of why this works is due to Courteney Cox, who is a gifted comic actress, yes, but also one who's not afraid to push right up to the edge of what the audience will find acceptable. She'll be shrill and grating if the scene calls for it, but she'll also be funny doing it.)
At some level, Cougar Town is about how being in the right place at the right time with the right people can create an environment where self-improvement becomes almost mandatory. I think it's telling that Jules is now together with Grayson. He's not completely perfect, but he is the person in the cast of characters who most has his shit together, and when he's able to walk into Travis' dorm room and get Bobby, Andy, and Jules to clear out because Travis needs to have his own space, it's the act of a guy who's both a friend and a sort of ad hoc guidance counselor for grown-ups. (Grayson, I just realized, is a bartender, and bartenders have fulfilled this role in TV sitcoms since time began.) There's something about this group of people that makes the pieces of who they are better when they come together, as they do in the ridiculously charming closer for this episode, which features everyone in the cul de sac playing together in a band for no real reason, other than Grayson trying to help his girlfriend get over her sadness. It's the kind of thing that's so stupid that it shouldn't work, but Cougar Town knows we love these people, and it knows we'll go with it if it plays it with a straight face. Somehow, it all works.
And, as always, it's that emotional core that holds the episode together. The storytelling is a little scattered here and there, what with the neighborhood watch plotline basically petering out and the plotline about Ellie and her nanny never going anywhere in the first place. The scenes surrounding these stories were funny, as that scene with the whole gang out making sure no crime was going on was the comic centerpiece of the episode (since glow sticks make everything funny), but the storylines sort of collided with each other and didn't have real payoffs. More than ever, the story was an excuse for the elaborate mishmash of emotional elements and laugh lines that the show's writers wanted to show off.
Fortunately, the laughs were the biggest the show has had so far this season (there's something guffaw-worthy in every scene, and many other pleasant chuckles throughout). The whole thing is just this side of ridiculous, and that's the tone that suits Cougar Town best. Even the more moving moments - like Jules and Bobby leaving Travis alone at college yet again - are undercut by sillier things like that whole business with the band. And yet the emotional stuff works just as well. There's a real sense here of parents being unable to let their son go because for a long time, he's been all they've ever had. "Makin' Some Noise" doesn't exactly nail the perfect sitcom episode structure, but it does do something valuable all the same: It tells a story about a crazy woman feeling her feelings to the absolute, maximum allowed level and somehow makes it poignant.
- "Well then, I'm a badass because I lived in women's prison once."
- "I'm gonna call you squarehead."
- "Hey, look at me. I'm a hairy Adonis."
- "CUBAN. MUSCLE. CRISIS."
- "I'm not riding my dad's musk."
- "Whenever I see a girl, I'm like, 'What would mom, dad, and Andy think?'"