“Nothing of great consequence ever happens, but we always have fun.” So says Bobby Cobb halfway through tonight’s episode of Cougar Town, and it’s both a succinct summation of the show’s overall vibe yet a sentiment that simultaneously sells the show short. There are episodes (and sometimes half-seasons) that feel so light that a stiff wind might send the whole endeavor into the ocean. But beneath it all are a few core questions that suggest the show’s small scale nevertheless contains some rather large conundrums.
Again: This isn’t a way to suggest that Cougar Town is actually a steathily deep psychological drama posing as a happy-go-lucky hang-out comedy. But since the show introduced Chick’s illness a few weeks ago, everything in the show just feels slightly different. That’s not to say that we’re lining up for a huge tonal shift by season’s end, but that simple introduction of mortality into the fabric of the show has given the gags, diatribes, and silly adventures more weight by association. “This Old Town” positions the adults on the show as the halfway point between the relative youth of Travis and Laurie with the age, wisdom, and let’s face it, hellacious horniness of the elderly couple that purchase Grayson’s old house. Hanging out and drinking wine all the time sounds fun. But at what point does that stop constitute “living” and instead transform into simply “existing”?
That’s the question Melody Derloshon’s script asks, and while the episode has the persistent fourth season problem of trying to cram too many stories into each episode, it also smartly makes each one a variation on a single theme. To be sure, last week’s “Saving Grace” also struck that balance as well. But what pushes “This Old Town” above last week’s installment is that it understands that certain spheres of the Cul-de-Sac crew exist on different parts of the “living” versus “existing” continuum and gives them the appropriate stories for their appropriate place along that line. Variations on a theme is fine. Variations tuned specifically to certain characters? Even better.
Jules, Grayson, and Ellie learn to initially embrace the slowed-down lifestyle of new neighbor Ann McCormick (played by The Partridge Family’s Shirley Jones) and her husband Norman. As people who generally enjoy doing as little as possible, the idea of having dinner at 4:15 p.m. and being in bed before 7:00 p.m. sounds downright delightful for these three. Pretty soon, they are wearing cardigans, employing reading glasses, and assuming the stereotypical lifestyle of a senior citizen. Naturally, Ann is appalled by this behavior, telling Jules that she and Norman left their retirement home because they wanted to be surrounded by youth, not constantly faced with the spectre of death. Instead, it’s the McCormicks that show more vigor than Jules and Grayson, as evidenced by the breaking-and-entering-and-bootycalling that the elderly couple pull off while their younger neighbors go in search of buffet dinners.
Bobby, Travis, and Laurie haven’t truly settled down yet, so they don’t have anything to do with the intergenerational issues listed above. Andy wants to maintain his close relationship with Bobby, so he stays in this particular sphere and ends up helping all three push past roadblocks that have kept them stuck in place. What’s down the line for them past these roadblocks? There’s the rub, and that lack of knowing freezes Bobby and Laurie in their respective tracks. Bobby doesn’t want to risk losing Lisa Riggs, so he keeps things “casual” in order to avoid screwing up their potentially great relationship. Laurie, on the other hand, doesn’t understand how to pursue a guy when all her “normal” avenues of romantic expression might render Travis confused (good scenario) or catatonic (bad scenario, or the BEST scenario, depending on your perspective). Bobby and Laurie aren’t worried about growing old. They are wondering how to truly grow up.
Derloshon puts all these characters into outlandish situations (a scooter motorcade, a snake hunt, a $500 Penny Can contest) in order to arrive at some central concerns for all involved. What’s comfortable, the episode argues, is often antithetical to true happiness. “This Old Town” doesn’t advocate that people torch their lives and start anew in order to avoid ruts (something that’s probably happened to Laurie a half-dozen times before the age of eight), but it does argue fairly passionately for reinvention and exploration within familiar arenas with the proper supporting cast. Cougar Town works as often as it does because we root for these people to be better than they are, not because these are terrible people but because they recognize their own shortcomings and make halted, hesitant steps toward fixing them.
All of this brings me back to The Chick Theory Of Cougar Town. Comments over the past few weeks have wondered if I know something about where this season is going with that character. The answer is simple: I don’t have a clue. If the introduction of his illness was something the show simply threw into a single episode, only to never bring up again, it would be ridiculous and perhaps even a little offensive. So the alternative to that scenario is that Chick’s status is important, if not plot-wise (who knows how sick he is, how long he has left, etc) then from a thematic perspective. The introduction of the secret-keeping “vault,” Laurie’s increased confusion over her feelings for Travis, Ellie’s fear that Andy no longer found her attractive, Jules’ sudden instance on the importance of her faith, and now this week’s musings on aging all feel like ways for the show to look at what happens when the Cul-de-Sac crew sobers up (literally and metaphorically) and takes measure of how much joy the individual members are actually getting during their brief time on earth.
With all that in mind, the constant Rudy references make total sense. When taken with Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” what emerges is a synthesized ethos that suggests acting in the face of fear is what defines you as a citizen of the living world. Sometimes, it means sneaking in sex in your neighbors’ bedroom. Sometimes, it means handling snakes to show you’re ready for commitment. Sometimes, it means playing Penny Can to see if you’re even capable of having a drama-free relationship. Sitting around and drinking wine while creating inside jokes is a fine pastime. But it’s not what makes up a full life. No one on Cougar Town has completely cracked that code yet. But there’s no reason they can’t crack open a few more bottles while exploring, either.
- This week’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. Call your mom, tell her you love her. We’re trying to do something positive with these.”
- “Change approved!” made its return this week, as Jules clinked her glass not to say anything important but simply to get attention. (Her clinking while driving was a hellaciously funny sight gag.)
- “How are you not dead?” That was another example in the ever-expanding “Ian Gomez asks the questions the audience has long been pondering.”
- Good-bye, “Jealous Much?” Hello, “The Sea Story.” I feel like Bobby is going to play a lot of Sting’s solo work on a boat named that.
- Bobby Cobb’s first memory involves looking at his twin brother in the womb. Poor Donny never made it into the world, apparently.
- “We need to rage, rage against the machine. And no matter what, stay away from the light!” Jules Cobb would be AMAZING at playing the game of telephone.
- Part of me thinks Travis would be mortified at having every single member of the Cul-de-Sac crew crash his college party. On the other hand? RUDY! RUDY! RUDY!