Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Cougar Town: "Keeping Me Alive"

Illustration for article titled Cougar Town: "Keeping Me Alive"

At this point, it's become obvious that a.) nothing will break up the cul-de-sac crew (a coinage so weirdly irritating I can't stop using it) and b.) Busy Philipps crying will add at least a point to any review of this show. I really like the way Cougar Town is digging into its own history this season, but it sometimes feels like the show is doing this in lieu of moving forward (or moving even further backward into the characters' stories). That's for fairly obvious reasons: There's not an immediately obvious engine driving this show. It's about a bunch of middle-aged people who hang out in a divorced woman's house and drink a lot. I sort of have this nightmare vision where ABC picks up the show for a third season but retools it to be about these same people hanging out all of the time, but in a police station or something, so there's something obvious to tell stories about week to week. Because at present, the show's loosey-goosey vibe is what I like best about it, yet it's also the thing that I'm half convinced stands in the way of the show being a bigger hit.

It's somewhat forgotten that when Cougar Town debuted as a show about an older woman who started dating younger guys, it actually drew better ratings than it does right now, airing after a bona fide hit in Modern Family. (Indeed, its debut actually outperformed the Modern Family debut in a few key demographics.) The biggest thing standing in the way of Cougar Town may not be the name, which everybody involved in the production admits is possibly a bad idea at this point in time, but, rather, the fact that if you want to get someone interested in the show, it's all but impossible to tell them what it's about. When it was "an older woman starts banging younger dudes," that was a show you could explain to people, even if it sounded incredibly trashy. But "middle-aged people hanging around on lazy afternoons and drinking a lot and having strangely moving conversations about the ways they've failed each other"? That's a whole other kettle of fish.

The thing is, all comedies improve with time to get to know the characters. The Cheers pilot might be the best sitcom pilot of all time, in terms of introducing characters and situation and still getting actual laughs, but even that show takes on weight once you've given it five or six episodes to really get going. (And, of course, toss your picks for greatest comedy pilots out in comments, by all means.) One of the things that has stood in the way of comedy making a significant comeback is the fact that TV comedy often doesn't pilot well (if I may use pilot as a verb). Comedy is built so heavily off of characters interacting with and reacting to each other that it means a handful of episodes has to air before viewers can really start to understand the depths of humor the show is capable of. But in a world where pilot numbers often make or break a show, that's a problem.

Even if that's true of every comedy, though, it's especially true of Cougar Town. Every week, people wander through in comments and say something to the effect of having heard the show was good but having dropped in for that night's episode and not gotten the appeal. And to a real degree, that's because there's very little to hang onto in Cougar Town, in terms of premise or setting or even humor style. For better or worse, the characters ARE the show, and if you haven't spent a few episodes with them, it can be tough to get a grip on what the show is going for. Bobby talking nonsense with a fellow redneck is hysterical to me because I've seen all of the show's episodes and know that Bobby's redneck past (h/t Ben Folds Five) is a recurring motif that gets goofier every time it comes up. But if you've never seen the show before? It just manifests as a guy wandering around, talking in a faux-Southern accent about something called a "shnook."

But this season, the show's been digging back into its past, finding the story avenues it mostly abandoned in season one and seeing what happens when it digs them up again. The heart of tonight's - uncharacteristically focused - episode centered on Jules continuing to pay alimony to Bobby. When he's made fun of for this fact during a game of Truth or Pennycan (a device I hope the show brings back), he immediately restructures his life to get off of the alimony payments. He's able to do it, but only by cutting his health insurance. Does he then immediately injure himself trying to catch  a Frisbee with his mouth while diving from a diving board? Have you watched television before?

More broadly, this episode focuses on insecurity. Ellie's insecure about losing her smarts and sophistication because she hangs out with a buncha "dummies." Bobby's insecure about his acceptance of alimony, which leads to him getting a job with Jules, a job that proves he's adept at getting customers through the door but not closing the deal (or keeping the office clean while they're there). And Laurie continues to be insecure about the fact that she and Smith have broken up, that he didn't love her as much as she loved him, though the two continue to try to be friends (a play that Grayson and Andy, rightly, find suspect). The closing montage here is maybe the best of the season, as Laurie breaks down again about why Smith doesn't love her, Jules and Bobby talk about their situation, and Travis reassures Ellie that they're smarter than everyone else mostly because they've realized they're not. They're three good scenes, and they go even better together.


The question, though, is how much any of this will play for someone who might not know that Jules and Bobby were married before the series began or who didn't see Laurie and Smith's relationship take an intriguing turn toward serious last season. Character interaction tends to be what I value in comedy, and I love that every character on Cougar Town has a different relationship with every other character. But those relationships have taken time to build, and understanding them requires that the audience - or at least the audience members who are just tuning in - take a few episodes to let the show wash over them. "Keeping Me Alive" is probably the best episode of this season so far, but it's also the one that proves the show probably needs to find some sort of second-season-unique storyline for new viewers to jump on board.

Stray observations:

  • I'm running behind, so here's an all-quotes edition.
  • "Do you guys wanna know what bejazzling is?" "Yes, I … don't?"
  • "He's even too redneck for me, and I've got a cousin named Grits."
  • "The margarita instruction manual wasn't a book."
  • "Sad is when your foster brother loses an eye in a backyard wrestling match."
  • "I was counting the exclamation point."
  • "That's who I am now, Travis. A penny-throwing dummy."
  • "They're too preachy, and you can't clap when someone dies because it's real."