Let’s talk about television comedies for a minute. “Change” is often the enemy of them, insomuch as should the characters ever deviate from their everyday patterns, or learn from the mistakes they continually make, the show would often cease to have a reason to exist. Time moves on, but variations on the same themes persist nonetheless. In a perfect world, from a network’s perspective, any viewer could watch any episode at any time and feel as if they hadn’t missed a thing. Plenty of televised comedies buck this trend, to be sure. But far more feel like they are the same plot regurgitated over and over again, with only slight variations separating each iteration. In other words: some things can’t change, but some things can.
I choose that phrasing as an homage to the first half of tonight’s two-part Cougar Town finale, ignominiously dropped into the primetime line-up after the end of sweeps. Laurie uses that accurate, albeit abstract, phrase to help Jules explain the nuances of the 1993 film Groundhog Day. But it also helps explain sitcoms in general, and the problems that single-camera comedies in particular have tried to overcome since the arrival of The Office onto our airwaves. Again: the idea of change in didn’t arrive when David Brent turned into Michael Scott. But both those producing televised comedies and those consuming them have often sought more than simply the same episode reskinned on a weekly basis. And while Cougar Town has progressed its characters over its first three seasons, such progression can seem to take place at the same speed of continental drift when viewed from afar.
That makes Grayson’s outbursts during the Kevin Biegel-penned episode “My Life” seem that much more jarring, but also that much more necessary, before the show can move onto the wedding it has been planning all season. Sure, each character has matured in some fashion over the first thirteen episodes. But they all still gravitate to Jules’ house each day like moths to a flame, something that outrages Grayson more and more with each passing night spent in his soon-to-be-permanent residence. What’s so phenomenal about tonight’s two-parter lies in the way that several elements throughout this season, but also series, culminate in ways that felt earned but still incomplete. In other words: these people have reached a landmark, but not their final destination.
For Grayson, tonight’s hour represents an arc that started from the first moment we saw him onscreen. The rest of the cul-de-sac crew called him “new guy” just a few episodes ago, and it served as a reminder that he served as our introduction to the crew even as he became immersed within it. Here’s a guy that’s enjoyed having a support group, but only so much as they served as a part of his life, not the sum total of it. We learn tonight that his home (now destroyed by the hurricane) served as his desert island, a refuge from the constant craziness of Jules’ home. He’s an introvert surrounded by codependent extroverts. Sure, he can lay down a mean song on the guitar and wear Zubaz with the best of them. But he’s also a deeply wounded guy that has a hard time believing the other shoe won’t drop at any given second. Without that home, he no longer has a place to call his own and mentally recharge. Is it any wonder he punches a hole in the wall?
If this finale served as a capper for Grayson’s arc from solitary man to someone who fully accepts the cul-de-sac crew as both “total package” and “extended family,” then it also served as a way for Jules to not simply talk the talk when it came to truly supporting Grayson. If the first half-hour, “My Life,” was about the ways in which Grayson tried to carve out his own space within the marriage, then “Your World” was about Jules not simply tolerating that space but giving them both a shared sphere in which both could support and surprise each other. Getting back to the Groundhog Day analogy, it’s all well and good that Jules consistently misunderstands the few movies that she sees. But it’s another thing for her to pay lip service to Grayson’s needs and then subsequently trample them in order to achieve her own happiness. I wouldn’t say Cougar Town has consistently had a Jules problem. Rather, I’d argue the show has consistently painted her in complicated shades. She’s supposed to be likeable, but also incredibly flawed. Sometimes the show pushes her into straight-up “annoying” territory, but has done so with increasing infrequency as the show has progressed.
Still, it’s great to see Jules sacrifice what seems like a dream wedding in Napa just so Grayson can have his daughter Tampa Jill present for the ceremony. Tampa Jill probably won’t remember anything except the scent of Tom’s sweat from inside his cast, but it’s obviously not about Tampa Jill’s experience so much as Grayson recognizing that Jules understands the importance of Grayson’s daughter in their shared life. It’s just one of a dozen amazing details in the stealth beach wedding that ends the season, which rivals the end of “A One Story Town” in terms of the show’s all-time great final sequences. It’s the culmination of many disparate storylines—the wedding itself, the inability to get a beach permit, Chick’s attempts to not cry as minister, Travis’ desire to become a photographer, and, oh yeah, the increasingly heartbreaking tale of Travis and Laurie.
I’ve been holding off discussing this, because frankly these two broke my heart in ways I thought impossible after the hurricane-centric episode “Down South.” At the time, I thought the show was just checking in on that pair and wouldn’t revisit their romance until a (theoretical at the time) fourth season. But no: that episode was just laying the groundwork for the perfect storm (see what I did there?) of a wedding, a twenty-first birthday, and the unexpected arrival of Wade to push things between Travis and Laurie to even more painful places. If anything, “Down South” can be seen as the show giving its blessings to this coupling, while “Your World” demonstrated that even if it’s something that is meant to be, it need not be possible in the present moment. In that respect, the demographic of the Cougar Town cast of characters helps couch Travis’ disappointment and mortification in the proper context. For someone that is twenty-one, a drunken, naked confession of love seems like the end of the world. For forty-somethings, it’s a speed bump on the road of life, one far less noticeable than the ones Andy installed in the cul-de-sac. Sure, the wedding itself was beautiful, and watching Chick trying to hold in his tears damn near killed me. But what will stand out will be Travis and Laurie silently apologizing to each other. Had this been the last episode, we never would have seen how those two might have ended up together. But would we have any concern they wouldn’t?
With so much going on with these four characters, the other three didn’t get much time to really shine in this final hour. Ellie got in some flirtation with a concierge at the Napa hotel (played by Courteney Cox’s real-life ex, David Arquette), but it felt a little off: Why was she so smitten? Why did Andy tolerate it so much? And is a copy of the photo Andy took of Ellie in bed available for download somehow? So many questions! Andy and Bobby got some extra exposure in the first half of tonight’s finale, as they confronted the possible end of Penny Can. That was another Groundhog Day-related plot, one that stressed the show’s overall theme: What you do is less important than with whom you do it. Drinking wine? Fine. Drinking wine at Jules’ kitchen island? Infinitely better. There are only a certain amount of things one can do in everyday life. So it comes down to the people that share those activities with you.
Had this been the final episode of the show, I would have been disappointed but not dissatisfied. I could have railed at the fact that we never saw Travis and Laurie kiss. But recent events on Mad Men have demonstrated the power of withholding what the audience thinks they actually want. If I thought those two crazy cul-de-sac kids were in trouble of never getting together, maybe I’d fret. But none of the now-married couples on the show seem worried about the prospects for Travis and Laurie, so I’m not particularly worried either. I’d love to see Andy’s mayoral run in its full glory, and I’m anxious to see Bobby get off the boat and into a proper home. But while I want to see those things, I’m also not exactly fretful that they wouldn’t happen in a theoretical world I might never have gotten to see. So many bubble shows play fast and loose with audience emotions, seemingly daring networks to not cancel them by building in artificial cliffhangers meant to incite anger should the answer to the question posed in the final seconds never be answered onscreen. Tonight’s Cougar Town didn’t put a question mark at the end of its season. Like Parks and Recreation, it put a period on a particular chapter, while intimating the story itself was far from over. Given the unstable nature of broadcast television, it’s a graceful way to accept the uncertainty of a show’s future while also providing satisfying television to those watching it.
In the time since last we talked about this show, Cougar Town creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Beigel have both stepped down as showrunners, and Ric Swartzlander has been tapped to take over that role as the show moves to TBS. Lawrence and Biegel will still be involved with show in some capacity going forward, but it’s obviously unclear how this will affect the show’s quality going forth. Swartzlander’s resume won’t exactly knock your socks off (Gary Unmarried, 8 Simple Rules), but it’s hardly a de facto indicator that the show will suddenly suck come next January, either. All one needs to do is look back at the roster of writers that once penned episodes for Nash Bridges to understand that past performance need not indicate future results. Shawn Ryan, Carleton Cuse, Damon Lindelof, Glenn Mazzara, and others all sprung forth from that show. If this season of Cougar Town taught us anything, it’s that change can be both good and necessary. Otherwise, things might just turn into Groundhog Day. This day has finally ended. But the show hasn’t. For now, we can be grateful for that and hold out hope that the show will return strong in 2013. It won’t be the same. But that’s probably a good thing.
- The Penny Can Bible has extensive rules about seemingly every type of scenario possible. To wit: There are entries on sewers, sewer rats, AND sewer people.
- “Squirt me in!” is just about the worst phrase of all time. I kept waiting for Sterling Archer to pop in and exclaim, “Phrasing!”
- Jules’ lust for angry Grayson was appropriately disturbing. Yet still kinda hot. Maybe I have as many problems as she does.
- The show toned down its verbal game-playing in favor of actual plot this week, but still unleashed “Hostradamus” upon an unsuspecting world.
- “Dogs bark. Fish swim. I bitch grin.” I want this on a t-shirt, please.
- Biggest laugh: Jules dropping her wine glass in horror upon learning Travis didn’t like wine.
- Favorite overuse of a callback joke: Jules’ repeated instances of “Cooper’ing”.
- I love that this Napa resort has a $20 “all you can drink policy,” apparently. Those bell hops did nothing but bring these characters booze for a week straight.
- Nice to see Stan less demonic this week. See? People can change!
- In case you’re curious: The song playing over the wedding? Katie Herzig’s “Lost and Found.” Christa Miller serves as music supervisor for the show, and has consistently found great music for the series’ run. “Lost and Found” took what was already a gorgeous scene and lifted it into the stratosphere.
- For those that care about grade breakdowns: “My Life,” A-; “Your World,” A; third season as a whole, A-.