Last week’s return from an unplanned hiatus came at a bad time in the season for Cougar Town. Granted, any break for the show isn’t good at this point, even though, inexplicably, overall viewership went up after the fortnight’s intermission. Last week’s episode was a low point, albeit only in terms of the overall stellar season the show is currently enjoying. Part of the problem lay in an Ellie/Laurie storyline that didn’t seem calibrated to their current status as characters. If anything, last week proved that the show’s breezy atmosphere is in fact the byproduct of incredibly hard work. This makes the show’s success rate this season all the more impressive, and it’s nice to see the show return to form with “Ways to Be Wicked.”
If Ellie and Laurie were the primary problem last week, they are the primary reason this episode works so well. After a season in which either Jules/Grayson or Bobby/Angie dominated the main plots, both Christa Miller and Busy Philipps the chance to shine in stories about their characters’ inner fears. In the case of Ellie, the fear is manifested in the arrival of her mother Betsy (Susan Blakely). Despite Ellie’s protestations over the years that Betsy is a she-devil, the rest of the cul-de-sac crew simply plays along to humor her as well as avoid an Ellie silent treatment. It’s a fairly typical Ellie plot, until Jules overhears Betsy talking smack about her inside of Ellie’s house. Betsy notes that Jules’ overuse of mascara would lead to her looking like Alice Cooper, which leads to the 1-2 punch of Jules looking just like the King of Shock Rock and then asking (with regard to Cooper), “Is she pretty?” Never change, Jules.
Were Ellie simply a byproduct of her mother’s cold-heartedness, that would be one thing. But it’s clear in this episode how much of Ellie’s attitudes are a defense mechanism built up after decades of never being told a nice thing by Betsy. Jules agrees to “mean up” in order to get in with Betsy and deliver a kind word about Ellie via secondhand communication. It’s not much, but still more than Ellie has ever received in her whole life. But Betsy never takes the bait, and it’s somewhat surprising to see the issue unresolved by episode’s end. But that lack of resolution feels appropriate as well as earned. After all, Ellie has a family in the cul-de-sac, and even if we see her booming “NO WINE FOR YOU!” when people can’t find nice things to say about her, we now have a slightly keener insight into the mask she wears on a daily basis.
It’s not that Laurie wears a mask, per se. But she’s also someone that has conveyed a deep of feelings for others but little in the way of self-understanding. She’s a showy character, often beating others to the punch line when she’s the butt of jokes. But in tonight’s episode, we learn that she’s secretly harbored dreams to own her own cake shop called Crazy Cakes. Now, some of this is just sitcom-bullshit plotting, designed to give a character something to do in the third season of a show. While it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she’d be good at creating cakes (many of which are based upon actors in Die Hard), it still reeks slightly of “we really need to find new things for Busy Philipps to do.”
But that’s okay, because I’m 100 percent behind giving Busy Philipps anything to do on this show. And while it’s awesome to hear her exclaim things like “OMG Spot!” and giving Grayson a “Congrats On Your Baby That You Had With A Drunk Girl That You Picked Up At Your Bar Before You Started Dating Jules” cake, it’s also nice to see Cougar Town start to develop Laurie as much as it has developed Bobby this season. Since we didn’t get to see the origin of Laurie’s passion, we also avoid dozens of scenes in which we watch the character try and fail to perfect her methods. So the plot arrives fully formed, as does her skill. What’s lacking is her confidence, and what starts out as a semi-dull storyline involving Grayson’s disinterest in learning things about his friends turns into a sweet little story about him helping out Laurie buck up her courage to venture forth with her business.
Both Ellie and Laurie stick their neck out in this episode beyond their comfort zones. Travis does as well, albeit in a far more slight and much sillier plot. This C story involves him lamenting the fact that his house (a.k.a. The Panty Graveyard) isn’t quite the success he envisioned. So he enlists Sig and Kevin (who I believe is making his first appearance this season) as well as his father and grandfather to steal the cougar statue on campus. This allows the show to have Sig comment on the program’s unfortunate title: “Why does this school have a cougar? Nothing here has anything to do with cougars.” This plot doesn’t have much to do with the others, but it does allow for some really funny bits, including “Ghost Dentist” and Chick’s casual larceny. Still, it does allow Jules to get the necessary information to help Ellie move past hoping for Besty’s approval. So while it doesn’t always seem to fit with the other two stories, it does come together at the finish line.
- This week’s title card: “Pay attention: The title almost makes sense this week!”
- Laurie’s cake business will continue over the next few episodes, which makes “Ways To Be Wicked” feel like necessary groundwork for things to come.
- Christa Miller isn’t often asked to break your heart, but when called upon to do so, she can certainly deliver.
- Andy is a big Cuban middle finger. Make of that what you will.
- There should definitely be an episode in the future where Jules gives over fully to the Dark Side of Ellie’s meanness. Assuming there’s a future for this show. Jesus Christ, the ratings depress me.
- Co-creator Kevin Biegel played “Seinfeld Guy” in the season-two finale, and I imagine the “No wine for you!” at the end of tonight’s episode is an homage to the Soup Nazi.
- Things I loved this week but didn’t have room to mention: Mr. Bellyface, Muffin Ball, the fiscal reasons behind boob-shaped cupcakes, Bobby’s fake hacky-sack streak, the return of the truth gun, and the blasé attitude of the campus security guard.