Network comedies have an almost insurmountable problem. That problem? They are often judged solely on whether or not they are funny. That might seem silly on a variety of levels. For some, judging a comedy by anything else other than how often it makes you laugh misses the point. For others, it’s the nature of the assignation given to a 30-minute block of primetime programming. This problem exists on basic/premium cable as well: What the hell does one call a show like Louie, Weeds, or Eastbound & Down? But the problems are even more pronounced on network television, where shows such as Community, Parks And Recreation, and Cougar Town are aiming for things above and beyond merely tickling an audience’s funny bone.
“A One Story Town” is at times fall-down funny, but it’s ultimately a redemption story for Bobby Cobb. He’s a guy who in any lesser show would be a part-time, caddish figure who pops in to say stupid shit and serve as the butt of jokes. Here, however, he’s the saddest character on the show, but not because he fails as a fictional entity. Rather, Cougar Town has managed to take the stereotype of a philandering, less-than-intelligent ex-husband and turn him into someone who is not only likeable but has a depth of feeling and pathos that almost no one on the show can match. Sure, seeing him repeatedly fail at eating soup from a bread bowl is funny. But the story which forces him to confront this failure twice is what really sells this episode, and really sells Cougar Town as something above and beyond a mere comedy.
After all, it’s certainly possible to have drama without any comedic content. But shows that do that feel as if they are missing a core part of the human experience. So why should people tuning into 30-minute comedic programming get their knickers into a twist when elements of real emotion and dramatic impact enter into frame? If anything, watching the cul-de-sac crew pull together to help Bobby score the perfect date with Angie feels more true to life than anything seen on supposed dramas. Here are people who don’t suffer every minute of their lives, which affords them a few moments to mock and enjoy each other. But things can, and do, get serious at times, and it’s the lighter moments of bonding that prepare them to help one another at a crossroads.
That crossroads comes in the form of Angie, who potentially isn’t just another notch on Bobby’s bedpost like all those he slept with behind Jules’ back. (As Grayson points out tonight, sometimes facts sound worse when you say them out loud.) So put aside all the craziness of the installment—the return of The Worthless Peons, the crazy Canadian-infused crab festival, the digressions into the running style of Tom Cruise—and you have a group of people helping a hopelessly shy man get to the point where he can be as much himself with Angie as he is with them. It seems impossible (or “imprazzable,” as Mumble Bobby says), but everyone sans Ellie pitches in.
It’s a wonderful setup for an episode, offering a clean through line that includes all the principle characters. Jules dons a pair of headphones and coordinates everyone’s efforts from her kitchen, which turns into a kind of war room as she attempts to match the date she wants for Bobby/Angie in her head with its unfortunate execution. It’s bad enough Bobby forgets to wear pants. But it’s even worse when he compliments Angie’s dress by comparing it to the one his grandmother wore at her funeral. From there, things go from bad to worse, in a series of escalating mishaps that eventually lands a badly burnt Angie trying to rescue a dying manatee. (It all made logical sense while I watched it, I swear.)
Having Angie go on a date involving everyone in the cul-de-sac also offers a chance for an outsider to observe these incredibly close (bordering on co-dependent) friends at their best—as well as worst. Penny Can is an acquired taste, but it’s even harder to acquire when Travis and Andy are busy spray-painting each other on Andy’s boat. Relying on Laurie to get you early movie tickets means you run the risk of her wiping buffalo sauce into her eyes, thereby ruining the chance to spend two hours in blissful silence. Meeting Jules/Grayson for a double-date dinner only confirms how odd it might seem that all of these people with so much history hang out together. And Ellie, a.k.a. “Sarge?” Well, Sarge stays behind for most of the date, content to wear her baseball jersey, sip wine, and take naps on Jules’ island while the Peons go through Jules’ toiletries upstairs.
And while it’s formula for a Bill Lawrence show to eventually come to moments of sweetness near the end of an episode, the way in which every single element of the show forges a uniquely magical final few minutes is something that really turns a corner in the show’s writing style. While there’s still a looseness to the show’s vibe, there’s also a noticeable tightness in its writing. Co-creator Kevin Biegel’s script (inspired by his love of the 1966 film Gambit) masterfully weaves things together like a series of dominoes, tipping them all down at the precisely right moment. Jules uses the Tom Cruise style of running to beat the crab-festival traffic home. She uses Tom, a “group exploder,” to clear a path for Angie, who got carried to the plaza by Ellie. The Worthless Peons are anything but, putting their Disney audition skills to use by singing The Little Mermaid’s “Kiss The Girl.” And of course they sing that song… they are at a crab festival!
But all of this writing precision would be the equivalent of a mathematical formula without the heart and soul of these characters. Too many shows aim for clever structure when they should be aiming for compelling characters. Cougar Town has had the latter for quite some time now. But they have added the former this season in ways that have exponentially increased the show’s power. It should be a little weird that everyone in the cul-de-sac crew witnesses Grayson’s proposal, stand up to the Bicycle Boys, and watch Bobby’s first kiss with Angie. But it all makes sense: In a sea of people, whether citizens of Gulfhaven or an influx of Quebecois, these characters need to know the others have their back at all times. Sometimes, that just means sharing a bottle of wine. Other times, more dramatic techniques must be employed. And what’s so wrong with a comedy getting a little dramatic every once in a while, right?
- Things I loved super-hard in this episode: Jules’ kick at the top of the stairs during “Hi Ho!”; every time Laurie said “Quebecois”; Laurie and Bobby “ooh”ing and “ahh”ing at Tom’s social fireworks; Bobby’s use of the word “infrastructure,” Angie’s understandable fear of bees; Christa Miller’s line reading of “chunky bitch”; Tom’s overly elaborate examination of Angie’s burns; Travis threatening to kill Andy “Omar-style”; Sarah Chalke’s walk towards Bobby in the plaza; and oh yeah, the end credits.
- The end credits! I didn’t talk about them above because they are a piece of entertainment unto itself. But the Scrubs fan in me lost my mind during that sequence. A little of this goes a long way, and the succinct way everyone walked in to freak Ted out felt exactly right. So much for tonight’s title screen phrase: “No, it’s not just Scrubs in Florida with a lot of wine.”
- If there's a slight blemish in tonight's episode, it concerns Grayson's worry over being the 7th-best kisser Jules has ever had. It eventually takes off during the double date, but his constant kissing of her before that stalls things slightly. Still, it's something that's easy to overlook in the larger context.
- Apparently, a lot of weird stuff went down in Gulfhaven during Y2K.
- “It feels faster! Let’s take a curve!” And thus we have my new favorite Jules/Ellie moment of all time, supplanting long-time champ “DJ Ellie” from season one.