Tonight’s Cougar Town was as light as any feather on Mr. Beakington’s back. But considering this was an episode overstuffed with story (including a potentially episode-wrecking one about faith), that’s a pretty slick accomplishment all the same. I wondered two weeks ago how the show would integrate its revelations about Chick’s condition into the overall fabric of the show. The short answer? It hasn’t, although the themes of the episodes since have danced around a central one: At what point do you favor change over what’s familiar?
To be sure, the show hasn’t bogged down into existential crises for all involved. But while “Saving Grace” doesn’t explicitly reference Chick’s apparently short remaining time on this earth, it does use Jules’ nightly recitation of grace as another way for her to look at life beyond wine-drinking and inside jokes. Last week looked at how a tight-knit group can still keep plenty of secrets from one another. This week prodded those deeply entrenched in familiar patterns. Grayson doesn’t believe he has to subscribe to Jules’ spirituality. Ellie doesn’t believe she needs to work to keep Andy attracted to her. And Bobby doesn’t believe a tomboy surfer girl can be an acceptable romantic partner. All of them, it turns out, are quite wrong.
Now, to be sure, “Saving Grace” has the same basic problem as “You Tell Me.” Each story is too short by at least half, with each worthy of deeper examinations that could have yielded either deeper laughs or deeper insights. But unlike last week, “Saving Grace” has the added strength of all three storylines more or less relating to and commenting upon each other. Earlier this week, Todd VanDerWerff wrote an interesting piece about the problems that Parks and Recreation is having this season. Whether or not you think that’s true, both Parks and Cougar Town feature central characters whose main plots, for better or worse, were largely over at the end of last season. That’s hardly a crime, but it means the shows don’t always have a place to go. Hang-out comedies are awesome. But even they have to actually get up and stretch their legs occasionally. Most shows do this by introducing increasingly outlandish scenarios. But the good ones do it by pushing characters past their comfort zones while keeping their core values intact.
The introduction of Chick’s illness actually offers amazing growth potential for Jules’ character. (I wrote about the difference between “plot” and “story” here a few weeks ago. In short: “plot” is what happens to someone, and “story” is why that matters.) But so long as the show keeps the Chick story in its back pocket (I’m assuming until the finale, at this point), what remains at present is a woman who successfully maintains a group of friends while also now enjoying a working (yet in-progress) marriage. Sure, each week exhibits conflicts between Jules and Grayson, but these are problems that will work out. There’s no real worry about the pair splitting up. And that’s fine! But if they are not going to break up, they still need to grow in some fashion. Growth is easier for characters like Bobby, Travis, and Laurie, who still have miles to go (literally and figuratively) to get to the point at which the show’s two married couples are. But that doesn’t mean those latter four should be static.
I choose to look at the sudden centrality of Jules’ spirituality in the same way as her fear of secrets last week. Even if the show isn’t explicitly tying those to Chick’s health, it’s easy to intuit how they might be related. Also, on a fundamental level, Jules isn’t worried about converting Grayson so much as making him respect her faith in the first place. That’s a much smarter tack for the show to take, one that lets the Cul-de-Sac crew fire off jokes about “New England Catholics” and Laurie’s “fountain soda” upbringing while making the entire plotline ultimately center around marital respect. I kept waiting for the show to start referencing The Birds, with its surfeit of seagulls throughout the episode. But ultimately, Mr. Beakington was just a funny running gag that tied in with the show’s showpiece: a dodgeball game.
When I saw “dodgeball game” in the promos for this episode, I’ll admit it seemed a stunt more than something the crew would organically do. But I also knew it couldn’t possibly be any worse than the dodgeball-themed episode Glee pulled off a while back. In the end, because the dodgeball game pushed the characters into making tough decisions or arriving at revelations, it worked quite well. Ellie’s slo-mo semi-strip tease for Andy paid off a storyline in which a “25/14” (a girl who looks 25 from the back, but is actually revealed to be 14 when seen from the front) suddenly threatened Ellie’s stranglehold over Andy’s libido. On one hand, it’s a bit strange to see Ellie suddenly start wearing clothes filled with crackers. On the other, she’s always taken Andy’s affection for granted, and it makes sense that her emotional apathy would eventually turn sartorial in nature. The three-on-three faceoff was weird (except for Jules’ greeting, which was laugh-out-loud funny), but this was about the destination more than the slightly awkward journey. More time with this psychotic “25/14” might have made this plotline stronger from start-to-finish. Then again, it was already borderline creepy, so maybe less is more in this case.
The Bobby/Riggs storyline didn’t have the epic romantic sweep of season three’s “One Story Town,” but I do wonder if that’s precisely the point. Not only would the show not want to go to the same well again, but it also recognizes that particular Angie-centric well actually ended up working out horribly for Bobby. The idea of a sneak-attack relationship, one already founded on friendship, is a smart move. It’s well-established within the show that Bobby cannot talk to women to whom he is attracted. So by having him bond with someone who is asexual, Cougar Town gets to introduce someone who can get Bobby past his current life status towards…whatever it is Bobby is supposed to do. Again, as I noted earlier: He has a great deal of room to move. So far this season, the show has either kept him in place or sent him to Target. I have no idea if we’ll ever see Riggs (sorry Lisa) again. But I know I would certainly like to see her again, because I’m extremely interested in who Bobby is with her. Maybe she can help explain to him why it’s possible to occasionally see the moon during daylight hours. Stranger things have happened.
- This week’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. This episode is funnier if you know that Courteney is terrified of birds.”
- Tons of callbacks tonight, with a reference to the beached manatee in “One Story Town,” Tom Cruise running, and Travis’ throwing yelp being just a few.
- I love the “As Mayor” game, but I think I like the “Come On” variation even more.
- Anyone else think that Lisa’s makeover session was only going take place in Andy’s head?
- In Jules’ mind, Ted Danson judges a reality show called Can’t Stop Dancin’.
- While the teenager plot didn’t work, Ellie’s assertion that the “25/14” was looking for a sugar daddy to take her on a shopping spree at Claire’s made me spit out my drink.
- I fully expect all of you to conduct your own “Cartoon Character Smackdown” in the comments below. But I know I’d never bet against Bugs Bunny, even against Grape Ape.
- “I always laugh at dudes in dresses. It’s a staple of British comedy!” Bobby Cobb knows his Monty Python!
- “You’re dressed like a lady who would do stuff for a little bit of crack.” Laurie would know this type of thing.