It’s a tricky thing for a show to reach the end of its season and not know if it’s coming back next year. There’s a lot of questions that must float around the writers’ room when that uncertain end is drawing near: Do we tie up all loose ends and try to satisfy everyone, running the risk of coming back without any material? Do we go for a few cliffhanger endings to motivate the fans and goad the network into renewal, running the risk of enraging everyone if we get cancelled anyway and don’t get the chance to answer any of them? Or do we just decide to make the best episode of our show we can, pushing out of our minds the idea that it might be the last chance we get to make one?
If any show is familiar with that limbo, it’s Cougar Town, because it’s spent its entire life within arm’s reach of the chopping block. It failed to break out when it first premiered despite being the return of Courtney Cox to a network comedy, as audiences were put off both by the title and a rocky first few episodes that didn’t make its characters seem appealing. By the time the show righted itself to discover its perfect alchemy of heart, wine and banter, the damage had been done and its survival on ABC became a full-time question. It was narrowly renewed for season two, even more narrowly renewed for season three, and had to jump ship to TBS to survive to seasons four and five.
And as a perennial bubble show, Cougar Town has developed a strong pattern for ending its seasons: leaving the door open for further adventures but tying off the ones it has as sweetly as possible. A large part of the warmth of Cougar Town comes from the fact that despite their constant ribbing there’s a genuine love and affection that exists between all of these people, and the season finales always pay tribute to that. From a structural point, they also form a nice capper to the ongoing arcs of the season: season one’s “Finding Out” fully integrated the Jules and Grayson romance into the show’s status quo, season two’s “Something Good Coming” saw characters deal with personal friction that had arisen in the second half of the year, season three’s “My Life”/“Your World” culminated a season of wedding plans and unresolved sexual tension, and season four’s “Don’t Fade On Me”/“Have Love Will Travel” turned Travis and Laurie into a real couple while also confronting Chick’s health issues.
“We Stand A Chance” doesn’t measure up completely to the high standards of is predecessors, largely because season five lacks the recognizable momentum of prior seasons. (It also lacks the big trips of seasons two and four, but explains that away early on as it being Tom’s turn to pick the group vacation and he opts for a stay-cation.) This year has been an overall enjoyable run for the show, with consistent laughs and a few gut-punches here and there, yet there hasn’t been a concrete arc you can point to or threads that have been operating in the background of various episodes. Certainly given the show’s improbable lifespan at this point I’m not going to fault them for a victory lap, but when held up to some of the emotional/comedic zeniths of earlier years it’s hard not to see the show ending on a softer note.
That being said, it’s certainly not like the episode lacks for either silliness or emotional depth, and it expertly uses the former to reach the latter. Worried about her life insurance physical Jules goes on a crash course to clean herself up (“I’ve got two hours to get healthy. It’s like cramming for a test!” Travis: “It really isn’t”), only to realize Ellie slipped her a couple pills to get her off a bad tangent the night before. Panicking, she convinces Laurie to front her a urine sample, which allows her to pass the drug test with flying colors, only for the doctor to discover something even more surprising. Cougar Town regularly gets humor out of how oblivious Jules can be, and this one takes the cake: first a horrified look when she’s told she’s pregnant, then exaggerated relife when she realizes that she’s not, and then dumbfounded shock once she realizes Laurie is. (Realizations triggered by Ellie, who loves Jules unconditionally but also sees her as a favorite toy sometimes.)
I was annoyed with this development when it was first introduced, partially because it’s simply a spin on the trope of mysterious pregnancy test floating around—a plot point that was used a time or two on another Courtney Cox show—and partially because Cougar Town’s track record with kids isn’t the greatest. (Remember Grayson’s daughter? Because the writers haven’t once in the last two years.) And a lot of the early stuff they do with this plot is largely what you’d expect: Jules scrambles to slap alcohol out of Laurie’s hands, tries to put together an announcement party using every decoration she’s got in the attic, and has a series of mild freakouts about being a grandmother.
But for all the cliché aspects of this plot, there’s something about it that stirs events in an interesting fashion. If there was a good idea buried in Cougar Town’s original conception of a woman in her 40s trying to relive her 20s, it was the idea that Jules was getting older and was trying to figure out what her life looked like next. And while it chose to move away from that idea at the start, the show’s been gradually inching back towards that idea as time progressed. We’ve seen it this season in her worries about Travis growing up in “Time To Move On” and her fears about losing Chick in “Hard On Me,” and the revelation that her son will be a father himself is the biggest notice of time marching forward.
That idea reverberates through the show’s subplots, taking their profuse goofiness and finding a way to make it emotional by the end. Travis and Laurie, blissfully unaware of Jules’s bombshell, decide to play along with one of Andy’s schemes to move up the ranks at work by posing as an Internet billionaire and his trophy wife. This presents the gleeful sight of Travis and Laurie putting on airs—Busy Phillips in particular kills it with Laurie’s embrace of the Brittany Huffington persona—and things get bumpy once their fake dreams start overlapping with their real ones. Cougar Town has treated the two as a real couple all season, and this is a real conflict that fits the relationship, not the trivial first fight of “Depending On You” but a legitimate rift over what they want, and a reminder that both are still hypothetically young enough to set a new course for their lives.
In an even goofier plot, Bobby and Grayson get themselves roped into a breakdancing competition when they go to the gym trying to play basketball. First they get called “old men” while walking out, then Grayson tries talking some trash back at them, and then (as South Park acutely observed), served plus served means it’s on. This would have been funny enough if the two of them just committed to the competition—and it is, between Bobby learning to do the Robot and Grayson talking about his “breaking crew”—but it does an interesting head spin once both men realize they will be grandfathers soon and immediately start feeling old. Given Grayson’s vanity and Bobby’s childlike nature, it’s natural this would hit them hard, and is even more amusing at how good they are at being crotchety old men. (Bobby does it best with some classic Old Man Yells At Cloud behavior: “You damn balloons! Sit around doing nothing all day, why not make something of yourself?”)
Both stories come to a solid conclusion thanks to the wise words of Chick—and if a sixth season does end up happening they better make the right choice and add Ken Jenkins as a regular, because every one of his scenes was terrific. He encourages Bobby and Grayson to embrace looking foolish as they get older, which they do by returning to the dance in tremendously entertaining fashion. (Of course they lose because their moves lack any freshness, but they’re smart enough to know it.) And by coaxing Travis into sharing his burdens, Chick finds the right scenario for his grandson to consider what he wants out of his life, and that all his New York photography dreams feel empty if he’s not sharing them with the woman he loves—yes, loves. Both arcs end terrifically, as Josh Hopkins and Brian Van Holt commit entirely to the dance while Phillips and Dan Byrd nail every beat of the emotional swell.
And if that’s not enough, Jules finally finds the way to execute her news with a quiet moment, every member of her extended family there. It’s an even stronger emotional wave, as initial shock gives way to overwhelming joy, and the mood is such that every member of the crew gets swept up and what could be a moment of uncertainty turns into a true celebration. Fittingly, the most powerful emotional beat goes not to the happy couple but to Jules as Chick provides a moment of reassurance. For all her tics and neuroses, Jules Cobb is the beating heart of this show, and for her to be okay with this—and welcome this new addition to their family with open arms—means things will, in the long run, be all right.
That mood gives Cougar Town a near-perfect potential farewell moment. Maybe this is the final time we’ll get to see Jules, Ellie, Grayson, Bobby, Andy, Laurie, Travis (and yes, even Tom) sharing a glass of wine and spending time together, but that final moment is so sweetly constructed and so full of affection for these characters that the pain is much less than it could be. “We Stand A Chance” may not be a perfect finale for Cougar Town proper, but it pulls off the essential trick of the bubble show finale in that it leaves you satisfied regardless of future circumstances. It’s not the end of the story of these misfits and their little cul-de-sac universe of giant wine glasses and Penny Cans, it’s a new beginning for all of them—one that we may or may not be lucky enough to see for ourselves.
Episode grade: B+
Season grade: B+
Final title card of the year: “Goodbye... for now? From...” Sniffle.
Okay, maybe the wine party isn’t the final moment of the show, as we’re treated to one last window into Tom’s model cul-de-sac while his dolls go through the highlights of the season. And once again, the worry that someday the crew will find Grayson buried in Tom’s backyard.
Nods to a few running jokes this episode, such as Laurie saying she needs to “pound some grape” to keep up the pretend marriage and the Jules/Ellie lesbian undertones. (Ellie: “I packed my Thelma And Louise bag six years ago! … We can kiss every time we cross a state line.”)
Ellie slipped Jules those pills to calm her friend down from a terrified freakout after she considered the idea that they only existed in Tom’s imagination. (And in Ellie fashion, joined the party: “If I took the time to mortar and pestle two dozen pills, I had some.”)
Tales from Laurie’s foster life: in her poorest days she masqueraded as Buffy McRichDollar, part-time cohost of Entertainment Tonight and on-again/off-again girlfriend of Ricardo Montalban.
Jules on her drinking habits: “Uh... you know, I have the occasional glass of wine with my friends.” Technically true, so long as no one asks her to define the word “occasional.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t fill out forms when I’m washing three puppies at the same time.”
“Unfortunately, a real child born into a pretend marriage is still technically a bastard. In case anyone’s wondering.” Chick was mildly curious.
“I don’t mean to ruin the moment, but is this the first time you’ve ever said ‘I love you’ to each other?” “Yes it is, and yes you did!”
“I feel like I just got hit in the face with a two-by-four, and yes, I know what that feels like.”
“It’s gonna be okay. Your family loves you, and we’ll always be right by your side. And believe it or not, there may come a day when you look back and realize that this was the best thing that ever happened to you.” “You’re the smartest dad ever.” “I agree.” Good God, Chick, you can indeed land a moment.
It looks like my glass is finally empty, so that means it’s time to say goodbye. I admit to being a touch intimidated when I inherited this assignment, a beat covered so well in prior seasons by my esteemed peers Todd VanDerWerff and Ryan McGee, but you all made me feel welcome from the start. Cougar Town fans have a special energy and you brought that every week, keeping the discussion interesting and rallying the troops when it looked like we were in danger of getting dropped from regular coverage. I don’t know if this is the end of these reviews or of Cougar Town itself, but if that’s the case I hope I did it justice on its final lap. Cheers, everyone.