I will freely admit that when I heard the idea behind tonight’s Cougar Town—the gang plays Sardines after hearing Travis spouting a theory from his psych class about how adults can reduce stress by playing games from their childhoods—I was preemptively annoyed by the whole thing. It felt like the show pushing the twee-est parts of its sensibilities—and they’re there—too far past the breaking point to really work. And then damned if they didn’t turn the whole conceit into one of my favorite episodes of the year, a vastly enjoyable and playful half hour that ended up having the emotional core I so enjoy from this show. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this season is the fact that the show is acknowledging that these people aren’t very good people some of the time. Even better, it doesn’t have them go back on their worst tendencies. They may recognize that they do terrible things, but change is hard work. When they wake up the next day, they’re still the same awful people as always.
The episode’s central comic idea is ingenious. Ellie is the one who kicks off the giant game of Sardines by tossing a somewhat hurtful phone call toward Jules. She’s hiding in the bed of a pickup truck, and no one thinks to look there, for some reason, except for Tom, who ends up laying down with her, shot from overhead. Gradually, Ellie sucks the others, sans Jules, into her hiding spot, but the majority of the hour is devoted to pairing the various characters off into new groups, the better to examine some character dynamics that don’t always get the most focus. I have no idea if this episode was conceived as a bottle episode, but it sure feels like one, with its reliance on standing sets and the core cast. On the other hand, setting up that shot with all of those people in the truck bed can’t have been easy, so I could be totally wrong.
The way the characters are split is very smart, too. You have Jules and Travis, who get lots of scenes and storylines together; Laurie and Bobby, who’ve shared plenty of storylines but haven’t had a lot of time together for a while; and Andy and Grayson, who seem as if they should have had lots of stories together but haven’t actually, to my recollection. Then you have the pure comic relief of Ellie having to spend so much time laying in a truck bed with Tom, something that gives the episode somewhere to cut to every time it needs a boost of comedic fuel. But all of these pairings offer fairly potent comic ideas. Jules is worried about how the rest of the group perceives her, something that Travis has little to no patience for. (He actively tries to avoid being a part of the game.) Grayson can’t figure out why Andy has such a problem with him much of the time. And Laurie wants to know why Bobby hasn’t introduced the group to his new girlfriend, Sam.
What’s great about all of these scenarios is that the characters have been paired off for maximum effect. We get a nice bit of Andy backstory, which suggests just why he and Grayson may have had so much trouble clicking. We get some good moments where Jules is at her very worst and then some moments where we’re reminded of why these people hang out with her. And the Laurie and Bobby story is similarly sweet, revealing some of the less appealing aspects of the Cul De Sac Crew and bringing back Laurie’s long-gone boyfriend Smith just long enough to make me hope that he’ll return on a more permanent basis going forward.
We don’t really get a good sense of who Sam is as a character, just yet, beyond the idea that she’s Bobby’s girlfriend and beyond the idea that she seems to fit in with the group almost instantaneously. And that’s fine. The episode wants to focus less on this new character and more on the existing relationships in the group (as it should be). If there’s a moment that didn’t really work for me in the episode, it’s the quick jaunt over to Bobby’s boat to meet Sam, so we can have the prospective “him” established as a “her.” The show has always had these weird, jarring scenes, that often seem just tossed in to establish a plot point or two, and though this one has a funny gag with the airhorn, it definitely stuck out in an episode that by and large had a more leisurely pace.
From there, though, as the game got going, the episode really settled down and just settled into a nice groove of being very funny. I like episodes that play structural games like this, and I particularly liked the moments when we got a sense that this group is TOO insular. In a way, the Cul De Sac Crew provides a way for its members to be the support group for each other none of them really have, but it’s also a way for them to be an insular, closed-off little society of their own. I like how the episode acknowledges this, on its way toward suggesting that this group could change its ways, could let in people like Sam (as they seem to do), before yanking the rug out from under us by how mean the group is to Tom at the end. There’s probably a line for how far the show can push this sort of thing and have these people remain fun to watch, but it’s stayed on the right side of that line so far.
And, better, these people ARE changing. They’re slowly growing more open and accepting, slowly beginning to open their doors to other people who they might not have even at the beginning of this season. They’re growing and learning together, figuring out how they work as a community and as individuals within that unit. If that sounds highfalutin’ (and it is), well, better that we experience all of this in a very silly story about these people playing a game that crams them all into a very small space. When you’ve got scenes this fresh and this funny, you almost don’t notice the other stuff the show’s trying to put over on you.
- No, seriously, bring Smith back. He’s the best.
- Also, let’s have some more tales of Andy’s childhood. There’s something so simultaneously touching and bizarre about them.
- Only one more episode before the big, Cougar Town break! Uh oh!
- "Today is big present day. I have to go get myself a big present."
- "So we should all go hide in the shower and watch my babysitter pee?"
- "There's an airhorn on the ladder for a reason."
- "That's different. He's earned it."
- "Unfortunately, this isn't my first mother-son rodeo." "I really wish they had those!"
- "I see you guys as a bunch of old people with surprisingly good skin given the amount of wine and sun you take in."
- "I don't have a Travis impression. I just want this hoodie."
- "He's married to you, so I know it's mostly terrible."
- "In walks this husky, balding 11-year-old with a whole fried fish for lunch."
- "I swear to God, I will burn this whole cul de sac down."