One of the hardest things about growing up is realizing that your parents are human beings, just like you, that they don't have all of the answers or even most of them. They can help you out when you're a little kid because they legitimately know more than you and legitimately know what's best for you (at least hopefully), but by the time you hit about 10, you're in a game where you're slowly catching up to them. You start to know as much as they do about any number of things, and in some cases, you even surpass them. (In my case, I'm not sure how good of a thing this is. My father knows everything you'd ever want to know about making a small farm work; I mostly just know a lot about TV. We'll see who's happier when the Apocalypse comes.) And you start to get your own life experiences. You realize that not everything they say is right, much as they might try their best. Somewhere around 13 or 14, you realize that a lot of what they've said over the years is bullshit.
Tonight's Cougar Town, the best of the season so far and an episode that sets a high standard for everything to come, finally moves on to some new business, though that new business is old for the characters. It deals with the strained relationship that's grown between Jules and her father in her adulthood. It's not as though the two argue all the time or anything. They just don't have a lot to say to each other, and her dad has trouble dealing with emotional moments. In the past, her mom was there to bridge the gap between the two, but now, her mom is dead. Now, Jules' dad is coming for Halloween, and she's hopeful that she can establish the kind of relationship she wants to have with him. Instead, he spends most of his time avoiding anything remotely emotional, and every scheme she tries fails. She figures he'll hate Grayson. Instead, he loves the dude and loves playing guitar with him. She thinks she can talk to him over a jam session. Instead, he avoids her questions, and she tosses him out of her house.
The consistent problem with Cougar Town episodes this season has been that they've been so busy that the many plotlines overwhelmed the laughs and the heart. At its best, the show combines some solid, zany comedy with emotional payoffs that play off of how we feel about the characters. All of the plots spinning around this season have gotten in the way of just enjoying hanging out with these characters sometimes. The episodes haven't been bad, but they haven't been up to the level Cougar Town was at at the end of its first season, and they haven't suggested where the show is going to go this season (outside of the Laurie and Smith storyline). "You Don't Know How It Feels" tells us a story about a new relationship - that between Jules and her dad - and crams the rest of the episode full of great jokes. Better, it only has the one B story, featuring Ellie and Andy trying to figure out what to do about the fact that Bobby still wants to be their son's guardian in the event of their deaths.
The streamlining helps the episode magnificently. The jokes and the character work both have room to breathe, and that leaves everything crackling along at a level that shows the series at its best. Last week, I was bemoaning that this show just doesn't work for people who are dropping in for the first time. But outside of a few very specific character gags - I'm not sure how much a new viewer would get out of Ellie and Laurie dressing as each other or Travis dressing as Andy - this was an episode pretty much anyone could watch and enjoy, I would hope. The central theme of trying to rebuild your relationship with your parent as an adult is one anyone can relate to, the jokes are uniformly strong, and the plotting is not so all over the place as to leave some of the story moments incomprehensible.
The old stereotype about single-camera comedies is that they move faster than any other show on TV. That's what makes them so addictive to watch for aficionados, but it's also what makes them off-putting to people who maybe don't want to pay so much attention to their TV as they watch it. On the other hand, Cougar Town, weirdly, works better when it slows down just a tad. It's still faster than your average multi-camera sitcom, but the joke a second pace sometimes causes the show to step on its own toes a bit. "You Don't Know How It Feels" slows down enough to tell two very affecting, emotional storylines, but it has plenty of time for great jokes. (As you'll see from the quotes section, and I've cut almost as many lines that I wrote down in the interest of space.)
Now, it was fairly obvious that Jules' dad was in the bear suit from the second that bear first showed up. That didn't make the device of having the two want to use the bear head to hide their tears as they had a heartfelt conversation about missing Jules' mom and how much they still love each other any less moving. And it didn't kill the gag of having Jules go to hug her dad and then ask if he was, indeed, her dad in the bear costume. It was just a nice, moving, funny little scene, of the sort that this show seems uniquely good at doing among comedies right now. If I were going to pick a scene to show off this show's strengths, that scene between Jules and her dad would be it. If Courteney Cox is nominated at the Emmys next year (and please let her be, TV gods and hordes of Showtime women), this would make a strong tape, and it's a fine reminder of why Ken Jenkins has always been one of TV's most unsung comic actors. Let's hope he comes back early and often. And let's hope Cougar Town can keep hitting these highs. This is what I'm talking about when I say this can be one of the best shows on TV.
- I liked the subplot featuring Ellie and Andy quite a bit, mostly because of what it avoided. Storylines about tricking preschools so kids can get into them are a dime a dozen on TV today, and they're very much reminiscent of "TV writer problems," which are usually upper middle class problems that are enormously difficult for most people to relate to on any level. (No Ordinary Family is just filled with these sorts of problems.) But they're the sorts of things that TV writers with family ponder, so they turn up in shows all of the time. Here, it turned into an examination of the couple's relationship with Bobby, and that was a much better tack for the episode to take. (Though I'm a bit confused on the timeline here. Jules AND Bobby are listed as Stan's guardians in the event of Andy and Ellie dying, but weren't they divorced before Stan was born?)
- I guess this episode did have a third storyline, though it was more of a runner. Travis and Laurie get into a "scare war," and the show displays the unsettling chemistry that's developing between Busy Philipps and Dan Byrd. If the show went for a hook-up between the two of them, it would be oddly plausible, yet still horrifying. I can't decide if I want the show to go there, or if it would scare me beyond belief. (For a second, I thought the "Laurie dresses up as Ellie and Travis dresses up as Andy" costumes were going to go there, but the show didn't really have room to work anything that complicated in.) This may just be a side effect of so many "Laurie and Travis do something wacky" storylines this season, though.
- I've seen a lot of shows do the "characters dress up as each other for Halloween" plot before, but rarely with as much charm as this show did it. Christa Miller, Busy Philipps, and Dan Byrd were all having a ball playing their fellow actors.
- "You think my dad's name is Goat?"
- "Grayson is a cool name." "For a hunting dog."
- "I like Rick. Rick's got your back in a bar fight."
- "Great. You made him blow away sad."
- "Why does everyone think I swing my arms? I never swing my arms."
- "If I start to cry, I'm putting my bear head back on."
- "I'm so excited for you, Andy, and Jules to die. I want that boy!"
- "So now you have to sit here and listen to a bear and a gay pirate play the same horrible song over and over and over again."