Just like the rest of us, Cougar Town gotta eat.
Back in season two’s “No Reason To Cry,” the show took a similar dip into the product placement pool by having Diet Dr. Pepper calm Bobby Cobb’s nerves on the golf course. It was a case of the show trying to have its cake, eat it too, and then have someone else pay for said cake. You can get mad about this sort of thing, but it’s an unfortunately widespread part of today’s television landscape. More channels, more shows, and more ways to watch them other than initial airings means fewer eyeballs on programs such as this during a live broadcast. It would be nice if this weren’t the case, but I’d rather get “You Tell Me,” an episode partially set inside a Target, than only get 14 episodes of the show this season.
The problem with the Target-cenric material plagued the other main storylines tonight: All of them had decent ideas, but not enough time to fully execute them. Travis getting insight into Bobby’s idea of a “vacation” isn’t a bad one, especially with the skeptical son eventually buying into and then enjoying the romance that Bobby has with someone we only know as “Target Mary.” But while the Diet Dr. Pepper stuff was a small sliver inserted into the familiar world of Cougar Town, here was an ad that literally took up the entire screen. This isn’t a show based on atmosphere per se, but there are recognizable landmarks, sets, and color palettes that help define the show’s aesthetic style. The Target branding clashes with that style, making every moment spent inside of the store tonight semi-jarring.
That’s too bad, since again, the idea of Bobby having this clandestine relationship with Target Mary has potential for him as a character. This season really hasn’t done a lot for his overall arc, with the Ron Mexico episode a distant memory at this point. It’s nice to see him want to take a break from life. But it would be much more compelling to see him start to actively engage with life. Had Bobby not made awkward banter concerning toilet paper, I would have assumed he and Target Mary had gone on at least a dozen “vacation” dates before. In an episode based almost entirely around the secrets this oversharing group keep from one another, it might have been fascinating to learn that a man we all thought was a melancholic, solitary sadsack was actually getting emotionally fulfilled without anyone realizing it. (It would have been akin to Jeff and Britta on Community admitting they had been sleeping together all year in season two’s “Paradigms Of Human Memory,” even though it all happened off-camera.)
The idea of the “vault,” the safe space in which certain members of the Cul-de-Sac crew have agreed to keep secrets from the others, is another strong idea. In fact, it’s so strong that I almost wish the episode had been about nothing except for that. The claustrophobic nature of the group is such that Jules simply assumes she knows everything through experience, osmosis, or simple anecdotal reference. That she doesn’t rocks Jules to her core, leading her to invite therapist Lynn in as a way to unlock every vault and reestablish the trust she feels has been violated. Nicole Sullivan is always a welcome presence on the show, and bringing her in periodically tends to give the show a shot in the arm.
With Lynn onboard, I half-expected things to go the way of the first season finale of Scrubs, in which Jordan Sullivan (played by Cougar Town’s own Christa Miller) dropped a series of truth bombs on the core cast, which had finally reached a point of equilibrium after a year of squabbling. But to have such a moment, everyone needed to be in close proximity to one another. Instead, the episode kept Jules with Lynn/Grayson/Ellie, sent Bobby and Travis over to Target, and left Andy and Laurie to exist in their own plot about unexpressed desires. The “Andy is mayor and didn’t know it” plot might actually bother some more than the Target product placement, but a large chunk of the planned storyline was jettisoned when ABC cut the season three order from 22 episodes down to 15. Again: You can get mad about this, or you can roll with it. There’s no right or wrong answer here. All I can say is that I rolled with it because the role is largely ceremonial, and achieving this goal allowed Andy to emotionally bond with Laurie.
Laurie as “Jelly Hulk” thanks to her confused feelings about Travis is another one of those plots that could consume an entire episode and most likely leave me a happy camper. Pairing up her repressed feelings (largely channeled into fistfights and attacking Tom with piping hot cinnamon rolls) with those of Andy, who feels abandoned when no one attends the ribbon-cutting ceremony, makes sense on paper. But it’s the third storyline that more or less works on its own (especially the final 60 seconds, which are beautifully done) while not fitting into the episode as a whole. It’s not that everything in “You Tell Me” feels like an unfinished first draft that never coalesces. But this episode does feel as if the writers couldn’t quite connect the dots in an efficient, effective manner to make the party for Andy feel like the natural endpoint for everything that had preceded it.
This is one of those times where I start out the review feeling one way, and then talk myself into another position entirely as I’m writing it. I still don’t think this is a particularly successful episode, but I don’t think it will deserve the drubbing I suspect it might receive. (Then again, what do I know? Maybe you all loved it, saw the grade, skipped the review, and are yelling at me right now.) There are interesting things all around, but they are buried in the episode’s overstuffed contents. Had the episode tied Jules’ fear of secrets into last week’s revelation about Chick… that might have worked in the episode’s favor. Had it not tried to take the Modern Family approach of giving every character equal screentime even if an episode naturally favored one or two characters… that might have worked in the episode’s favor. Had the show kept everyone in close proximity and turned everything into a vault-raiding mission filled with explosive revelation after explosive revelation… that might have worked in the episode’s favor. This isn’t about placing things onto the episode that aren’t already there. Rather, this is my attempt to tease out the strong elements already in place that I unfortunately had to really dig to discover.
After all, if there were nothing in this episode of merit, I would have ended the review a few paragraphs ago. But there’s material here worth mining, and part of the fun of writing about a show like this on a weekly basis is that there’s the time to do this type of mining. If you just want to complain about the Target stuff, that’s your right. That placement got us an episode we may not have gotten otherwise. That placement meant that all the stories in tonight’s episode were overcrowded, but there was still progression on the Laurie/Travis front, the reintroduction of Mayor Andy, and the introduction of the “vault” concept. There could have been a lot more to this episode, but that’s hardly nothing.
- This week’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. This episode was written by the absolute worst writers we have on staff.” The website that follows takes you to a series of videos that TBS has been running involving new writers Brad Morris and Emily Wilson, who have been positioned as clueless idiots that constantly harass the cast.
- I can’t imagine how confused people watching this show on DVR are going to be trying to figure out what’s the show and what’s a Target commercial. If this actually forces people to watch the entire episode without fast-forwarding, God help us all when season five takes place entirely in an IKEA.
- I kind of want a hi-res picture of the Vault Diagram as my screensaver.
- I’m not fond of meta in my Cougar Town, so the fact that both Josh Hopkins and Ian Gomez were once in Alanis Morissette videos is amusing, but nothing I needed to see in-episode. Then again, I’m sure for many that this was the highlight of the episode. Different strokes. (I love all of you regardless of your opinion on the insertion of “Unsent” in this episode.)
- “But Bill Lawrence did this with Neil Flynn on Scrubs!” cry some after reading that bullet. True, but the revelation that the Janitor was in The Fugitive actually paid off, since J.D. needed to believe that the Janitor once had a better life than the one he did in that show’s present day. That meta-based revelation worked on a character level. The Alanis stuff tonight was just a gag thrown in purely for laughs. Again, mileage may vary on how funny it was. But what Scrubs did and Cougar Town did in this case are very different, regardless of how successful you view their executions.
- Co-creator Kevin Biegel doing “Seinfeld Guy” in the Hawaii-centric episodes that ended season two? Funny. The running series of Seinfeld jokes tonight? Less so.
- How is “Crazy Bitch Whisperer” not a hired position on 90 percent of all reality shows?
- “You gotta come home. It finally happened. Where are our passports?” I love that Andy and Ellie have gamed out a scenario in which Laurie ends up dead on their floor.
- Lynn drinks her gin and tonics out of a beer mug.
- Ellie had the ol’ “seven/four” split when it came to her toes upon birth. So, sleep well thinking about that, America!
- Jules’ revelation that she doesn’t like Grayson’s daughter would have been too mean by half if we had actually seen Tampa this season. As such, that was a really harsh line all the same.