OK, maybe it’s time to worry a little bit.
That’s not a fun thing to write. It’s not a particularly fun thing to think about, either. And this has nothing to do with any behind-the-scene changes, because what goes into an episode of a television show is the byproduct of a few hundred decisions that ultimately affect the installment as a whole. But there’s something definitely different about Cougar Town at this point. The problem isn’t necessarily the quality, although the last three episodes as a whole haven’t been spectacular. Look back at each season, and there is a fair share of clunkers in each. Pretty much every good show has that ratio, so for this show to have a bit of a dry spell now wouldn’t be much of an issue if quality were the only criteria.
Instead, there’s a fundamental shift in the overall tone of the show that has pushed things into somewhat problematic shades. “Restless” actually starts off fairly promising, with Valentine’s Day the narrative engine for a series of romantic stories about people for whom romance is a messy, muddled thing. Having romance being something the characters fumble is fine. But tonight’s episode features a pair of sexual relationships between married people that isn’t completely consensual. On one side, Andy cashes in the ten “Sex Coupon”s he’s saved over the past decade in order to have a 72-hour lovemaking fest with a less-than-pleased Ellie. On the other, Grayson has sex with Jules while she’s too drugged up on sleeping pills to know what she is doing. Is this the Cul-de-Sac crew we know and love?
The “consensual” part is the tricky bit here. It’s not exactly the right word here, which is why I’ve put it in quotes. But I’m honestly not sure how else to express my confusion and queasiness. Look back on this season’s premiere, and you can see the groundwork for blurred line. In that episode, Andy did a series of nominally unspeakable things to Ellie after she took an Ambien. Now, in that instance, she allowed him to do so, but a lot of “comedy” in that episode revolved around just how far he took that particular round of blackout sex. In the end, Ellie is fantastically turned on by what she eventually learns about that lost night. So the “no harm, no foul” rule was established: in this season of Cougar Town, freaky shit’s going to go down, and we’ll all be faux horrified until it all wraps up in a tight, cuddly bow at the end of the episode in which everyone’s OK with everything that went down.
Now, I didn’t exactly praise that Ambien storyline at the time. But I didn’t have much of a problem with it, either. Now? I’m slightly concerned that I wasn’t more concerned. Am I worried about applicability to real life? Not really. Do I think the show is sending the wrong message to those watching? Not especially. This isn’t a case of watching The Following and being dumbstruck at how tone-deaf that show is about its use of violence. But rather than look at Andy’s refusal to listen to his wife’s pleas as a sign of either denial or simple lack of respect, the episode has Laurie tell Ellie she should be grateful Andy still wants to fuck her. On one hand, I get the sentiment Laurie shares with Ellie. Having desire be part of a marriage between people closer to fifty than forty is fantastic, and deserves to be celebrated. That’s certainly what the show wants to convey. But what it wants to convey and actually conveys are two different things. In short: we’re meant to celebrate the destruction of the final six tickets without worrying about the implications of the first four.
Grayson’s schtupping of Jules ruins what’s an otherwise cute, if harmless, story about Jules’ insomnia being related to her inability to kiss Grayson. Even if you could see that end coming a mile away, it was still nice to enjoy this as a small story about someone so used to a kiss goodnight from her husband that her body simply didn’t know what to do without it. Considering all the bickering in which these two engage, it’s a good reminder that they still respond to each other on a chemical level. So far, so good. But then, a bout of sleepwalking that involves “The Tomato Cage Dance” also apparently involves Grayson 1) having sex with Jules, 2) lying about it to her face when confronted about it, and 3) celebrating said deception with Andy and Tom behind her back immediately after deploying said lie, all of whom revel in the fact that they know something about Jules’ own sex life that she may never know herself.
A Grayson insecure enough to still play roller hockey is fine. A Grayson ignorant enough to not understand Bobby concocted “The Jules Rules” as a type of wedding present/offer of friendship is also great. But a Grayson who has sex with a woman acting like an extra in The Walking Dead? That’s a far more problematic character, and it’s such a jarring note for the show to play that it infects (pun intended, zombie lovers) everything around it. Instead of “What Would Ellie Never Say?”, aspects of this season have turned into “What Would Cougar Town Never Do?” Everything about this show worked, when it did work, due to balance. Each person had strengths and weakness (and, as mentioned in this season’s “Between Two Worlds”, superpowers) that balanced everything out ultimately between each other. Now, that power dynamic has shifted. What Grayson and Andy did tonight didn’t feel like what one member of a partnership would do for the other. It felt, in a strange way, like some sort of retribution, something done to their wives rather than for them.
Ultimately, this comes down not to Cougar Town suddenly morphing into an unrecognizable show but tweaking its characters enough to suddenly make the interactions between them seem slightly unhealthy. “People who self-medicate are probably just hiding a deeper issue,” says Jules, in reference to taking pills to help her insomnia. Of course, she’s drinking wine in the morning while saying that. It’s meant to be a nudge-nudge wink, but there is indeed a deeper issue going on here for the program as a whole. This isn’t about the show suddenly turning the Cul-de-Sac crew into the alcoholics that Cougar Town haters like to assume they are. There’s no danger of this turning into a Florida-based modern adaptation of The Iceman Cometh. But the warmth of these characters, the heart and soul of what made this meditation on adult friendship work for the better part of three years, has slightly dimmed in recent weeks. This show hasn’t fallen out of orbit, but it’s definitely off its axis. Getting back to the core reasons why these people actually want to be around each other should right the ship. But for now, all involved too far from shore for comfort.
- This week’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. Happy Valentine’s Day. Yeah it’s a fake holiday, but we still want stuff. XOXO, The Female Writers. PS — Not lingerie. That’s for you.”
- We’ve now seen a second absurdly hot girl show interest in Travis despite all evidence that she should flee. The first girl didn’t have a problem watching Game Of Thrones with his mother, father, and stepfather. This new one found getting into a harness and flying around a green-screened universe fun. Next up: he’s going to woo Patrick Wilson in a Brooklyn brownstone.
- Tom is part of the Cul-de-Sac crew, but still does his night thinking from outside the window.
- I kept fearing that stick-figure flipbook would go to horrible, horrible places. Yes, this is only TBS, and not Cinemax. Still!
- TBS sent out screeners for the next two episodes before the season started. They are markedly better than the last three. But it seems clear why the network omitted the last two. What comes after those next two episodes? We’ll have to wait and see.