After a few episodes of Cougar Town that have had their charms but lacked at times for connectivity, “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” is a pleasantly united affair for two reasons. First, it’s an episode where all of the action is centered around a major event in the show’s universe, the annual Buccaneer Week tourist celebration in the center of town. Beyond featuring extras in pirate garb in the background of every scene, every one of the characters is tied to the event somehow—promoting it politically, looking to profit on it, taking in the sights—and as such characters are able to move more seamlessly in and out of each others’ story lines. Plus, it’s a welcome excuse for everyone on the show to talk like pirates, a move that even pop culture illiterate Jules can get behind.
The other reason is even more encouraging for the show on a macro scale, as it implies that Cougar Town’s interest in pushing its cast toward personal growth isn’t dead. One of Cougar Town’s greatest strengths has always been its approach to how its characters are able to change and grow in response to outside forces, even in the most incremental ways, and that degree has been absent in the early episodes of this season. With Laurie and Travis finally set in a relationship one of the biggest open questions of the last couple seasons is resolved, and to date nothing similarly major has popped up to take its place. “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” doesn’t upset the apple cart on a seismic scale, but all three of its stories address both the idea that sometimes these people may be pushed outside of their comfort zones—and suggest some small cracks that have formed in the group’s foundations over times.
The most direct of those conflicts is the one between Andy and Bobby, driven by the fact that—shocking as it may seem—Andy is still the mayor of Gulf Haven and has to act like it sometimes. In the case of Buccaneer Week that means posing for pictures, organizing various community events and assuring powerful businessman Roger Frank (the always welcome Barry Bostwick) nothing can possibly go wrong. Of course, Murphy’s Law asserts itself immediately as a jellyfish stings Bobby while surfing, and he runs into the center of town shirtless and screaming how everyone’s going to die. Andy tries to reassure him they’ll do everything they can while reassuring Roger that Bobby’s not to be taken seriously, and then storytelling trope number two takes over in the form of Chekov’s speaker phone: the two best friends were keeping their phones on not to miss anything, and Bobby heard the entire thing.
Given how much Andy as mayor has been treated as an afterthought by the show, it’s a pleasant surprise to see it brought to the forefront, and even more surprising to see it become an obstacle in his friendship/bromance/heterosexual life-partnership with Bobby. Andy’s challenged Bobby at certain points in the series—his nonstop party after Jules rejected him a second time in “All The Wrong Reasons,” his embrace of the Ron Mexico persona in “Between Two Worlds”—but at those times it was to get Bobby’s head back on straight. Here, he’s not only speaking disparagingly of Bobby, he’s doing it behind his best friend’s back to someone who’s clearly not a friend, and the hurt on Bobby’s face is both noticeable and identifiable. It makes complete sense that Bobby would choose to publicly undercut his friend in a similar fashion, and would push half the town to riot against big business as a result.
That makes it a little disappointing when the conflict is wrapped up with relative speed. Andy channels the Quint introduction from Jaws to make a public statement about how important friendship is to him, Bobby excitedly states that he trusts the mayor to do the right thing, and the two hug it out with a promise to go hunt the jellyfish together. (A shirtless hug, to the discomfort of everyone in the bar.) Even though Cougar Town has made it clear that it prefers what the crew does outside of their working lives, Andy’s mayoral duties are one of the few untapped areas left for the show, and given they all have to live in this town it would be interesting to see how much he wants to defend his figurehead status.
Laurie’s faced with a similar degree of uncertainty in her professional life, though the only person she’s answering to is herself. Business at Krazy Kakes has stayed slow even with the advent of Buccaneer Week, to the point that she’s reduced to taking an order from Tom to make a disturbingly graphic cake for a friend’s bachelor party. One plug from Tom’s Twitter account later, and she suddenly finds herself in demand as a designer of erotic cakes. (All together now everyone: Ooh, erotic cakes.) Unsurprisingly, Laurie takes to the role easily, channeling her array of sexual experiences in a legitimate business matter to charge by the boob and know just how much orange frosting goes into making a cake portrait three months more pregnant.
While it’s a move that makes her shop so profitable she needs to break out her shoplifting bra to store the extra cash (“In my day, I could fit a honeybaked ham and a DVD boxed set in there!”), it asks if she’s willing to take on the moniker of “Cake Slut” to get there. Laurie’s desire to strike out on her own was one of season three’s major changes to the status quo, and while her relationship with Travis has justly been the focus her business aspirations are an equal part of her personal growth. Again, the episode opts for a short-term solution—she throws the skeevy crowd of erotic cake groupies out the door and manages to sell a wholesome butterfly cake—but the point remains that she still hasn’t figured out the complete path for success. It’s nice to see the show still willing to acknowledge that point, and it’s nice to see that a challenge can be introduced. (Plus, it’s a challenge that lets Busy Phillips dive head-first into an icing tube, which makes a good physical gag.)
On a personal level, the most dramatic change this week is Ellie busting out her rarely seen persona of “Charming Ellie” in response to Andy’s plea for some help with Gulf Haven’s socialites. Given how much Ellie relishes causing conflict—and how much Christa Miller clearly relishes playing such an unapologetic character—it’s remarkable to see her flip the switch and play nice with women who both mistake her for a server and insult her outfit. She’s even able to go the distance of comparing Tom to Don Draper, a move that practically removes his motor control as he tries to react to that compliment. Others are horrified and skeptical of this new Ellie, but Jules sees the persona of “Chellie” as a potential new best friend and is disappointed by its quick departure. (“We didn’t even have a chance to laugh and talk over salads like women in magazines!”) She tries subtly to get Ellie back into that persona, but Ellie picks up on the move quickly and shuts both versions of herself off from Jules.
Much like the Bobby/Andy plot, this works because it exposes the difference between these two close friends. Jules’ affection for Ellie is as unquestioned as Andy’s affection for Bobby, but unlike Andy she’s given far more indications that Ellie’s ceaselessly caustic attitude bothers her. Jules, as we were reminded last week, likes to make sure that everyone’s happy, and seeing Ellie be consistently nice lets her think that rough edge can be sanded off. And it’s an in-character move for her to realize that pushing Ellie to be kind all the time is something legitimately hurtful to her best friend (“It’s that being nice hurts me to my core,” Ellie says with complete sincerity) and that she wants her to go back to what’s best for all parties.
“The Trip To Pirate’s Cove” doesn’t end with any dramatic upheavals—Ellie’s back to cutting Grayson down with ease, Bobby and Andy are united in friendship and jellyfish stings, and Laurie serves up a vicious hybrid cake made of all her erotic leftovers—yet there’s the sense of some lesser explored ideas being scratched at. I’d hate to see the show reorient entirely into a study of mayoral responsibility and small business ownership, but for a show five seasons in, any new narratives to spice things up are welcome.
- Title card: “Now with pirates.”
- Callback: Bobby and Andy do the confidence dance to boost the latter’s mayoral charm. Travis once again bemoans the fact that he’s short on friends his age.
- Perks of being the mayor’s wife: Ellie can drink wine in public, park in handicapped spaces, get free stamps, and call the fire department to open jars. She also steals wine off peoples’ tables, but “that’s more of an Ellie thing.”
- Grayson’s not a key part of any of the main plots this week, but has some great moments between his inability to crack a single good pirate joke and the cautionary tale of when he added Monday night soccer channels to the bar and “hooligans” took over. “I had to change the name of my french fries to chips! Fire extinguishers in bulk to put out trashcan fires! I was headbutted six times!” Plus, his impression of their chants is a great exercise of Josh Hopkins’ impersonation skills.
- Laurie’s distressing erotic hybrid cake is an excellent joke to close the episode on. Jules: “Does it make me gay if I eat one of those?” Ellie: “Maybe.” Jules: “I’m doing it anyway.”
- “Take a picture of this mole! I don’t have a mirror on the boat, Dog Travis has body issues.”
- “She would have put a positive spin on your paleness. She would have called you porcelain!”
- “Wear a salmon cardigan with a paisley scarf? Who am I, an escaped mental patient?”
- “Come on, you know me, I fall love with new things! Remember I went through that psychic phase? I had that crystal ball... and Bobby went bowling with it.”