New TV rule #26: Nobody gets to make Busy Philipps cry.
Seriously, tonight’s Cougar Town was clocking in at around a B- until the show unexpectedly tied everything together in a way that made Philipps’ character, Laurie, cry. It was a typically funny and warm episode of the show, but the storytelling – which has always been scattered – was ridiculously all over the place in this episode. There were something like five or six different storylines whirring around, and most of them weren’t tied together in any real way. Travis was dealing with his girlfriend problems. Bobby was obsessed with a street performer who was eating a sword. Laurie and Grayson revealed to Jules that they slept together. Ellie tried to egg the situation on. Laurie’s relationship with Smith was getting serious. Also, Jules’ boyfriend from way back when the series began returned for no apparent reason. That’s a lot of stuff to wrap into a half hour, and very few of the things were interconnected, even though the show kept trying to make them interconnected.
It’s not like this is a new complaint to level against Cougar Town – or against a Bill Lawrence show in general – but in this episode, it felt like some of the stories were whirling along and the writers were losing control over them. There was one segment early in the episode where Laurie was in three consecutive scenes, and she was at Jules’ house in one, then at the promenade where Bobby was watching the sword guy, then at Jules’ house again (and sleeping!), and it all took about a minute. The effect was dizzying, and not in an especially good way. I don’t mind that Cougar Town tries to tell a little story about nearly every one of its characters with every week, but the best episodes figure out a way to tie all of them together in a few storylines that then have character-specific sub-storylines. When an episode is this busy, it can feel a little chaotic.
But as the episode went along, it became a lot more stable, as the writers tied off some of what was going on, until the end cut between Travis breaking up with Kylie and Smith breaking up with Laurie. And this is where the “Don’t make Busy Philipps cry” thing comes in, because this episode ended up being a stealth Emmy submission for her. The show plants the seed about Laurie really falling for Smith early on, but then it keeps weaving Laurie into more and more storylines, like how Grayson brings up that he slept with her – which happened eons ago, in the show’s chronology – just because he wants to come clean to Jules. It’s pretty clear that a lot of this was constructed just to get to that final set of scenes with the two break-ups, but it doesn’t make those two break-ups any less affecting.
And why does Smith break up with Laurie? It’s not because he’s mad that she slept with Grayson. It’s because he’s NOT mad she slept with Grayson. It’s a really great twist, a neat way to use a character who’s always been decent and straitlaced, and it’s a fantastic use of Laurie, as well, a character who could have been obnoxious and cold back when the show began but has become one of the go-to characters for when the show wants to underline an emotional moment, largely because of how Philipps plays her. Honestly, I was pleased to see the show dig up its long distant past plot points, and the way that it tied them in to the other storylines more or less worked for me. The series isn’t trying to completely sweep the way it started out under the rug; it’s trying to reconcile that past with the series it has become.
That said, there were plenty of rough patches in this episode. The middle section of the episode tries to keep us from figuring out that this is really a Laurie episode by making it seem like a Jules and Ellie episode, but this plot doesn’t get enough time to fully develop. Jules figuring out a way to not be mad about Laurie and Grayson sleeping together is a positive step for the character, and it’s fun to see Ellie get upset that Jules isn’t upset (she’s been waiting for this to come out for MONTHS!). But the turn where Jules is mad at Ellie instead of Laurie or Grayson – while logical – doesn’t get enough space to fully play out, nor do the scenes where Jules is mad at Laurie. I don’t think this needed to play out over multiple episodes or anything, but the pacing felt just a little too pell-mell throughout. There were plenty of laughs, to be sure, but too much time was invested in making sure the plot was moving forward at all costs.
Meanwhile, the Travis plot worked for me. Going away to college and then realizing that you’re not going to just immediately start sleeping with hot chicks (because you’re the low man on the totem pole) is a disquieting experience for every straight nerd who’s been hanging on to college as the time when he’ll finally get some, and I’m not sure I’ve seen it portrayed all that often before now (though I guess Undeclared did a fine job with it). And, naturally enough, Travis decided to go back after his high school girlfriend, but her new habit of biting his lip while kissing him was enough to make him wonder if she’s not hooking up with other guys now, and Andy was only too happy to stoke those fears. It wasn’t a great storyline, but as a commentary on what was going on with Laurie, it worked well enough, and it had some great delivery from Dan Byrd, who may be the show’s secret weapon.
And yet, even with the episode’s plotting problems, it’s hard to hate a half hour that ends with a scene as devastating as the Laurie and Smith break-up and then a tag as full of funny physical comedy as Grayson trying to play roller hockey. Sometimes, I worry that Cougar Town tries to do too much in its attempts to make us love it (I have similar fears about my current favorite comedy on TV, Community), but the payoffs are often so great that it doesn’t bother me when the show bites off more than it can chew. Cougar Town gains a certain energy from all of this manic activity, and so long as it keeps that energy grounded in real people who have real disappointments, I’m cool with it trying to do too much.
- The music is really starting to get obnoxious, though. I wish the producers would cut down on the scoring by about half.
- It seems like every week, the characters see something in their day to day life that they try to turn into a saying or something like “Slap out of it” or, tonight, “Eat the sword.” I’m not sure how much I like this device, but I DO like “Eat the sword,” so we’ll call it a wash for now.
- "Fun" Todd story time: When I went off to college, my girlfriend at the time and I said we’d “see what happened.” Naturally enough, I took this to mean that I was to make out with other girls, which I promptly started doing. When she called two months later to tearfully tell me that she had gotten drunk and made out with another guy, I blithely confessed to all of MY sins, and she promptly got very, very angry at me. I could not comprehend, for the life of me, just why she was so upset with me. Hadn’t we broken up? To tie all of this back in to TV, THIS EXACT PLOT DEVICE (right down to the phrase “see what happens”) animates the first season finale of Newsradio, though I was unaware of this fact at the time.
- "It's the real deal ... like ... keep the baby type of love."
- "I know I've been pining away for a man who has the body of a girl gymnast."
- "Usually, I don't like middle-aged men watching me get down with my lady, but this time I felt right."
- "Maybe it's my fault for not being mature enough; maybe it's yours for turning into a giant ho-bag."