Product placement is the new reality of the TV world today. Advertisers and broadcasters, no matter how many times they see studies showing that people often let the ads play while watching recordings on their DVRs or still manage to catch which products are being sold, no matter how fast the fast-forward goes by, are terrified that the old model doesn’t move product anymore. The more people watch TV on DVRs, the theory goes, the less they’ll be susceptible to advertising. (And, yeah, I always wait 15 minutes before I watch anything, the better to zap the ads. Perversely, I’ll often watch the ads in some of the less interesting programs I tape to have on while I write this stuff.) If advertisers want to reach the people, they’ll need to figure out a way to create insta-spokespeople, beloved, trusted figures who can tell us what we should be buying and enjoying. If only there were some way to blend this approach with a TV show… Hmmmm…
In general, product placement doesn’t bother me all that much. I get why it happens. I do. When someone like Diet Dr. Pepper forks out enough money to seemingly support the entirety of the ABC Wednesday night lineup, then the network’s going to be more willing to work with that company to figure out a way to incorporate that product into one of their shows. Tonight, as you might have guessed, that show was Cougar Town, but I’m under no illusions that we won’t be watching Brick rave about the wonders of the baby back ribs platter at Chili’s on The Middle a few weeks from now. Again, as long as this is done in a subtle or entertaining way, I don’t mind. I’m mostly immune to advertising in my dotage, and ironically deployed product placement, while becoming more and more of a cliché, is still funny much of the time, certainly preferable to any given episode of a cop show where one of the characters remarks about how fast the protagonist’s car is, and then the protagonist says something like, “Yes, it’s a Chevy,” before rattling off obscene levels of technical detail. (And all product placement is preferable to Jennifer Garner yelling “Quick, Vaughn! The F-150!” on Alias. This is a proven fact.)
Anyway, the big product placement extravaganza in Cougar Town felt half enjoyable, half unsettling. Bobby wearing clothes emblazoned with the Diet Dr. Pepper logo, in the hopes that he might run into an executive from the company on the golf course and get the company to sponsor his run at the PGA? Very funny and nicely tied in with the larger storyline about Kirsten unexpectedly setting Bobby’s game on a road to ruin after cluing him in to anything beyond the most basic facts about the state of the world today. (The few things Bobby knows include the existence of a black president and the name Lady GaGa.) But having Diet Dr. Pepper provide the resolution to the story as well, via the soothing qualities of the white noise that comes from the sound of a can being opened and the fizzy bubbles evaporating into the air? That felt a little harder to stomach. The show was clearly trying to go so far over-the-top with this idea that it became a joke in and of itself, a meta-commentary on the whole situation: Look how desperate we are for money! Just like Bobby! But it didn’t work. It was missing the ironic wink Travis provided to the earlier scenes that made them stay on the right side of the shrug-n-grimace “Hey, you know we have to do this, and we don’t enjoy it” line from earlier.
Still, that was one plot point at the end of an otherwise very funny storyline. Enough to derail maybe that scene but not the rest of the episode. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode was something of a mixed bag. Aside from some funny Busy Philipps business, involving both an animated movie about a termite princess (that’s not for kids!) and her elaborate coffee orders, and a solid little runner about the ways that Andy and Ellie solidify their couplehood while having to put up with all of the others in the group (in particular, Ellie describing Jules’ house as a “friend prison” was funny), the main plotline ultimately hinged on what’s been my least favorite story of season two, Grayson’s reluctance to tell Jules that he loves her and Jules’ obsession with when he might say it. I had hoped the show might have avoided going down this very sitcommy road with the resolution of the Thanksgiving episode, wherein Grayson admitted he has trouble expressing his feelings and Jules said that was OK, but, no, here it was again.
On the other hand, this time, the show wasn’t directly trying to be ABOUT that. It, instead, was more interested in the idea that Jules and Grayson are very different people, and this sometimes leads to conflict in their relationship. This isn’t the most original idea in the world, but it’s at least something that actually happens to real people in real life and not almost exclusively to TV characters. The plot hinged on a succession of inadvertent animal killings accidentally carried out by Jules. First, she killed the Grayson dove in the pair of doves she compared to her and her boyfriend by accidentally holding a frying pan in front of it. Then she ran over a squirrel with her car. Then she killed a lizard by stepping on it.
One of the show’s problems this season has been trying to decide just how far it can take Jules without making her a caricature. In particular, her relationship with Travis has been difficult for the show to calibrate, though it’s found an inspired kind of co-dependence between the two in recent weeks. The last handful of episodes have been trying to skew Jules back toward her essential humanity, and this plot was largely a good step in that direction. It was also a good plot for Grayson, who’s definitely not as tender-hearted as Jules and found much of her bad luck/karma incredibly amusing, though he tried to stop himself from snickering when he realized how much it meant to her. It’s such a nice, small-scale story about how these two people are still figuring out how to relate to each other in some circumstances that I’m not sure the “Why didn’t you say you loved me?!” plot needed to come back to add on to it. I could buy Jules going there, certainly. It fits her character to blow what’s ultimately a small argument into a much larger one in the moment. But, well, it’s my least favorite plotline of the season.
Still, the final scene went a long way toward redeeming this plot. Grayson gathered the cul-de-sac crew (to Kirsten’s continued bafflement) and held a funeral for the three dead animals. It was a sweetly funny little scene, one that suggested just how much Jules means to this man without driving it home too much, and when Grayson pointed out just how much the fact that he and Jules are different people makes them work, it was a very nice moment for the character and the relationship. And if the show wanted to tack Grayson finally saying “I love you” on to the end of this scene, thereby bringing the mini-storyline to a close? Well, I’m not going to quibble. Just as long as it never, ever comes up again.
- Who was that actor playing the vet? I feel like I recognize him, but I forgot to check for him in the credits.
- I’m really enjoying the incorporation of Kirsten and Tom into more of the stories this season. Both are strong characters, played by funny actors, and I hope the show figures out ways to keep both of them (particularly Kirsten, who will inevitably break up with Travis) around.
- Left unstated in all of this is the fact that I already regularly drink and enjoy Diet Dr. Pepper. Did this storyline have psychic time travel powers to get me to try the drink several years ago? Or has The A.V. Club similarly been bought off? We may never know!
- Kirsten realizing the similarities between Travis’ celebrity crush, Megan Fox, and his mom (both wearing skintight pants and having long, jet black hair) was very funny.
- Speaking of The Middle, is it just me, or has that show really taken a nice little step up in season two? We’ll be dropping in on it in a week or two. Are you guys enjoying it as much as us?
- "I'm writing a screenplay. It's a cartoon about a plucky termite princess named Molly who gets kidnapped and sold into sex slavery. It's not a kids movie."
- "You know what sounds even better? Peanut butter credit crunch."
- "Big J owns a taco stand across the street. He keeps a pencil in his neck fat, so he's clearly smart."
- "Oh! There's a dead bird ... and a real sad one next to it."
- "This is gonna make you angry, but he's basically a talking dog."
- "Are we really at a dead lizard funeral in your mom's yard?"
- "His favorite movie is Die Hard, and she's a horrible person!"