There’s a tendency in all comedies to go broader the longer they are on the air. It’s not a given, but it’s semi-expected: After a few years of establishing the show’s characters and their relationships with one another, there isn’t always room to organically expand the number of situations in which they can interaction in meaningful ways. So rather than go outwards, the show goes upwards. What unfolds is that shows turn the volume up in hopes of mining laughs from the increasingly antic behavior of its denizens. This isn’t just something that happens on subpar shows. Cheers, one of the greatest sitcoms of the past three decades, fell prey to this in its later years. Cougar Town isn’t nearly at the point in its overall run where everyone is in a Floridian-based recreation of Noises Off! The volume isn’t deafening at this point. But it’s curious to see the application of actual situations to the comedy that this show produces.
After all, this is a show whose initial premise (Jules Cobb chasing younger men) nearly undid it before it left the starting gates. The situations the show had to create in order to fit that premise carved Jules out from the group and left them as mere supporting players in her singular quest. Cougar Town course-corrected quickly into what it is today, which is nominally a “hang-out” comedy. The difference between that and a “sitcom” is largely semantic, something critics invented in order to more or less validate their existence or PR wings floated to save face at a production meeting. But I still like using “hang-out” as a way to define this show since, at its best, it’s never really been about anything other than the core group simply enjoying each other’s company. Sure, their enjoyment often stems from mockery, derision, and withering sarcasm. But they still draw strength from another, and the show draws strength from that camaraderie.
“Running Down A Dream” applies a heavy dollop of “situation” into the mix, which forms a thematically-connected triad of stories based around employment-related scenarios. Jules realizes she hates being a real-estate agent and contemplates working at Grayson’s bar. Bobby comes up with a get-rich scheme involving a food truck, and Ellie comes along as his “Burger Bitch” (think Soup Nazi, only with people delighted to hear the taunting). Andy tries to serve a slice of humble pie to Laurie and Travis, both of whom act like “art douches” and unwittingly offend those for whom work is actually, you know, work.
On paper, this is a perfectly fine way to establish A, B, and C stories around a common theme. But connection in Cougar Town works best when the characters are put into close (often claustrophobic) proximity to one another, rather than being split apart and paired off into different combinations. To be fair, the show has always split the Cul-de-Sac Crew up, so this is hardly some problem that started with the move to TBS. But look back on episodes like “Here Comes My Girl," “Lost Children,” and “One Story Town.” Those are all stone-cold classics of the show, and feature either many scenes involving most of the core cast or plots in which the story is handed off like a baton between them until all cross the finish line at the same time.
Maybe it’s less a problem of “thematic resonance” versus “character resonance” and more about the chosen theme tonight. Building shows around a theme works a lot and could certainly work within the confines of this show in theory. But the working lives of these characters have NEVER been important. Early in Cougar Town’s run, the show constructed a montage depicting how boring it would be if the show opted for a more “realistic” approach in depicting the lives of its Crew. Co-creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel have tried to explain the show’s approach by saying most of the episodes take place on weekends, but honestly, does it matter? At this point, we don’t worry about how they make money, nor worry about the place of work in their lives. The show trained us to understand this didn’t matter at all. Aside from Grayson, whose bar provides a convenient backdrop for conversations, it simply hasn’t been a point of concern, contention, or tension.
Neither have the artistic passions of Laurie and Travis, which were introduced in the third season but seemingly forgotten about this year until tonight. Not every episode of the show need include a shot of Laurie frosting a cake in order to make her career viable, nor does Travis need to capture every moment for posterity in order to remind us that he wants to be a photographer. But the lack of those occasional reminders does matter when it seems like these two are “art douches” for the sake of the plot, rather than the plot emerging from their transition from “finding their bliss” to “becoming huge assholes”. Andy’s repetitious use of the exclamation “Art!” was hysterically funny, but might have landed even more emphatically had his takedown of the pair been the result of weeks, not minutes, of establishment. Likewise, Jules’ admonishment of Travis could have been a seismic moment in the show’s history. As Travis himself notes, it’s pretty unusual to see her treat him with anything besides kid gloves. Instead, it just seemed wildly out of character, even considering her own disillusionment with real estate.
What little plot that’s unfolded over the past few seasons has largely unfolded from the hopes and aspirations of these characters. “Running Down A Dream” reverse-engineered that and placed plot atop these people and forced them to act in ways not antithetical to their natures, but still didn’t feel like reactions from people we’ve observed over the past three and a half seasons. The show demands friction in the Jules/Grayson relationship this season, and drudged up her employment as the motivating factor tonight. Cougar Town isn’t a show that will break this pair up, but does seem determined to make their marriage as unpleasant as possible, even in the early weeks of it. There’s a difference between showing a less-than-flattering aspect to a character and making the union of two characters make us like each less for their proximity to one another. It’s an odd note to play, and not one that really makes us root for their success at this point.
If there’s one plot that’s an effortless extension of who these characters are, it’s the one involving the food truck. Last week’s “manners date” wasn’t a good use of the Bobby/Ellie dynamic. But the food truck scam is classic Cobb, and Ellie insulting people is about as much in her wheelhouse as humanly possible. Rather than having an early slam on his intelligence linger over the entire episode like a hamburger warmed in Bobby’s armpit, the episode quickly moved past it in order to let the pair co-exist side-by-side and create a carnival-like atmosphere around “Bobby’s Burgers.” It was a slight plot, and it would be great to see Bobby actually move forward in his life rather than stay standing still in his boat. But in terms of finding a way to engage characters under the umbrella of “employment”, this felt most organic to the show as presently constituted.
Is all of this a case of overthinking something not made to withstand such analysis? Possibly. But Cougar Town traverses in character-based observational humor, with catchphrases and callbacks thrown in as deceptive fodder for hashtags and party games. (“Stranger Touch!” had the same cadence and melody as “Penny Can!” for God’s sake.) Those catchphrases and callbacks are fine, but only get the show to a certain point. Sure, it’s funny to see three people drown their feelings with frosting. But it would be funnier/sadder if that sight gag held meaning beyond the surface image. And because Cougar Town has deftly handled the emotional with the quirky since righting the ship with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” it seems fair to hold it up to the standards the show itself has set during its run. This isn’t about imposing unfair arbitrary rules in order to suck the fun out of a show that features Andy Torres' stand-up routines from the 1980s. Those types of gags are the frosting on what’s a much more substantial cake than the one the show has baked over the past two weeks.
- Tonight’s title card gag: “It’s Donny. I’m writing these again whether they want me to or not. There’s blood everywhere.” It’s weird that the most continuity this season revolves around Donny and The Latin Kings.
- Raise your hand if you saw “Bobby’s Burgers” and started scanning the crowds for H. Jon Benjamin.
- We see Tom in the house once this week, so it looks like his inclusion in the group will hold for now.
- “I can’t even be a WHORE?” These economic times are tough indeed, Jules. But feel free to order me hummus any time, despite how you pronounce it.
- Jules’ rules for pricing food in Grayson’s bar are almost as complicated as the rules for the drinking game “True American” over on New Girl.
- “I wish Terry the Train would crash and burn to death in a fire.” I feel that way about Caillou, Ellie. And I don’t even have kids.
- Insider baseball: TBS sent out six episodes for review. But they were not the first six. The final two that have yet to air are both great episodes. (In short? You almost got a glowing review of the wrong episode tonight. That would have been stellar on multiple levels.)