As much as I appreciate the running gags that run through Cougar Town, part of me appreciates even more the fact that the show never feels the need to overuse any of them. Such elements as Penny Can, Travis’s makeshift green screen, “Change approved!” and Grayson’s musical numbers work so well because they don’t need to pop up in every single episode, and rather are pulled out here and there to remind viewers how well-formed the show’s world is. Cougar Town knows what keeps its audience coming back week in and week out, and has regularly found ways to deploy those devices in new and interesting ways—witness the international success of Penny Can this season, or Tom’s dolls having the power to enforce “Change approved!” on the group.
It’s my respect for that process that soured me on “Learning To Fly,” because it featured one of the laziest uses of a running gag the show frequently executes so well: sacrificing one of Jules’ impractically massive drinking vessels. After Jules lies to the majority of her customers at the Cul-De-Sac’s annual yard sale, Laurie cautions her friend that karma is going to catch up to her—and not Laurie’s wrestler friend from Tampa who once put someone in so powerful a figure-four leg lock they’re now “Siamese leg twins.” Jules tries to discount the idea and opens up a bottle of celebratory champagne, except the cork pops off and ricochets across the wall to strike Big Tippi and send it skidding. Once again, there’s the booming yell of horror from Jules, the slow-motion image of the glass sliding to the floor and shattering with the force of a thousand broken dreams.
And yet when it happened, all I could work up was a “Really? Meh.” Jules’s massive wine glasses are a vital part of the show’s DNA at this point, but Big Tippi has the least amount of goodwill built up out of any glass to date. Any notable qualities it has are associated with its namesake—who popped up in its introductory episode—not because it was a legitimate part of the Cul-De-Sac crew’s alcohol-loving identity. Yes, there’s the obligatory funeral scene and ceremonial replacement (Hello Big Chuck!) but it lacks the depth of when the same thing happened in “It’ll All Work Out” or “Little Girl Blues.” It’s most damning that the in memoriam tag at the end of the episode only had clips of Big Tippi from two episodes, its introduction and this season’s premiere, because those are the only times we ever saw it.
It also doesn’t help that the destruction of Big Tippi happened as part of a fairly stock sitcom plot, as Jules’s neuroses cause her life to spiral out of control with semi-hilarious results. Usually when the show takes that route, it does so in a way that amplifies some of the more serious character-based stories going on that week. Big Joe hit the ground at the hands of Kirsten, which added additional friction as Jules dealt with her emotions about Travis’s first college girlfriend. Big Carl was dropped by Stan in a failed ring-bearer test that created serious friction between Jules and Ellie and amplified wedding jitters. Big Lou was taken out by Grayson’s dancing in an episode where Jules had to grapple with her father’s mortality. Here, Jules’ interest in karma comes largely out of the blue, and despite a late-episode effort to craft a secret fear about how well things are going—Chick’s improved health, Laurie and Travis’s thriving relationship—it fails to land with the impact of any of its predecessors.
Indeed, that’s the overall issue with “Learning To Fly,” in that there’s little in the episode of substance to hold onto. All three of the episode’s main plots—Jules trying to find her way out of a bad karmic loop, Andy trying to prove to Ellie she can’t go a day without being sarcastic, Bobby trying to work through his fear of roller coasters—come across as largely generic sitcom situations from a well Cougar Town doesn’t often feel the need to draw from. Maybe proximity to the excellent “Hard On Me” hurts tonight’s episode by way of comparison, but there’s a definite feeling of going through the motions to everything that happens this week.
The Andy and Ellie plot, for instance, is an old sitcom trope where one character bets another one that they can’t change their behavior for a certain period of time. (Speaking of Courtney Cox, Friends did the exact same thing in season five when Ross bet Chandler he couldn’t not make fun of people.) Ellie’s equal disdain for the people at the yard sale and all the junk Andy buys leads the latter to see if she’ll put one aside to get rid of the other, throwing in the consequence of wearing a sumo suit if she fails to keep her mouth shut. Predictably, what follows is an onslaught of events she has to bite through her tongue to stop from commenting on, be it Grayson’s captain’s outfit or Andy’s bagpipe tribute to Big Tippi. And for his part, Andy revels in the opportunity to flaunt his dorkiest behavior, up to and including dancing around in a frilly pink robe. It’s mostly routine, even though clearly Ian Gomez and Christa Miller are having fun respectively ramping up the goofiness and portraying near breakdown.
Similarly, Bobby’s plot involves unearthing a long-hidden phobia of a main character, played chiefly for comic intent. While digging through Bobby’s boat for yard sale offerings Travis comes across an urn containing the remains of Bobby’s grandpappy Robby Cobb (“That surpasses the duck skeleton as the creepiest thing on this boat”), which he left to Bobby with the instruction to scatter the ashes from a roller-coaster. Why have the ashes stayed in the urn for so long? Well, it turns out it’s not just because Bobby’s beard maintenance takes up so much of his time, it’s that for all his childish exuberance he’s afraid of roller-coasters. Travis volunteers to help his father through his fear, auguring the return of another Cougar Town running gag as he sets up the green screen to simulate a roller-coaster experience.
Both plots are slight ones, yet they still manage to work in certain ways because they rely on the work built establishing these relationships. Yes, what Andy and Ellie are doing feels like the mark of a ridiculously dysfunctional couple, but it’s a regular cycle of conflict and odd games that allows these highly disparate individuals to maintain their marriage. And Travis’s efforts to work Bobby through his fears draws on the father/son dynamic that hasn’t been touched on much this season, emphasizing how much Travis has had to be the grown-up in this relationship. Nowhere is that clearer when Travis outlines his own fear of roller-coasters, one that was imprinted in his head early on by his father’s desperate attempts to convince him that there was something wrong with each one: boogeymen, loose screws and drunk vomit. (A series of reveals given to us by flashbacks, offering the return of Bobby’s famous white-trash mullet.)
In the end, Travis decides to be the man of the family once again take the plunge—literally—and stand in for his father on the roller-coaster. Bobby can’t let him do it alone, Jules can’t risk any more bad karma, and everyone else is pulled along for the ride. The best episodes of Cougar Town have a fine syncopation when they come together, but this feels more like throwing everything together at once. (Even Grayson’s captain outfit gets more exposure than Ellie’s sumo outfit, as the “Captain” gains enough respect from the amusement park attendant to let them all in at once.) One cheesy photo, a splash of ashes from the badly positioned Bobby, and all outstanding issues are resolved. Not a terrible episode of Cougar Town, but one that could be interpreted as balancing karma for how good last week was.
- Title card: “What does the Cougar say?”
- Josh Hopkins’s singing makes a triumphant return this week as Grayson’s penned a ballad for the yard sale. Amusingly, none of the crew wants to hear it; and even more amusingly, Grayson doesn’t care and knows exactly where they’re all hiding.
- Turns out Laurie has another doppelganger, this one a Latina with blonde extensions and a Day-Glo push-up bra named Charity Diaz. I wonder if she rolls with the Latin Kings.
- Tom’s yard sale offerings: CDs, dead wife’s shoes, used scalpels.
- Grandpappy Cobb taught Bobby the difference between a sea lion and a seal. It’s the ears.
- “Letting you put this green screen in my apartment was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. And I once went on vacation with Dennis Rodman!”
“I’m one of those blue guys who destroys stuff! Somehow that’s theater.”