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

Cougar Town: “The Criminal Mind”

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Who’s gonna be the asshole that takes an episode of Cougar Town that pays homage to The Breakfast Club and gives it a bad grade? Not this asshole, even if “The Criminal Mind” was an episode that played up the broadest tendencies of the show and downplayed the heart and pathos that make it one of the more interesting half-hour shows on television. Those reading these reviews for long enough know that I’m not a fan of meta in this show. Then again, I’m generally anti-meta in general. I already know I’m watching a television program. I like my entertainment to make me forget that while I’m watching.

But that’s just me, and I know (judging from the near universal praise for “The Sea Story” stuff last week) that I am an outlier in this case. And that’s fine. Cougar Town doesn’t have to cater to my whims each week, and it’s pretty clear that there’s a love both on- and off-screen for John Hughes. That joy is infectious, especially in the closing credits in which the Cul-de-Sac crew recreates the famous dance scene from that film. Even the idea of having each character’s inner thoughts suddenly on display isn’t the worst idea possible as a one-time thing. So putting aside my general disdain for meta for a single week, what really stands out here isn’t that the show put too much of The Breakfast Club in my Cougar Town. It’s that it didn’t put in enough.

“The Criminal Mind” offered up the slimmest of Cliff Notes for The Breakfast Club, taking the fun, surface stuff and excising the pain and heartache at the center of that 1985 classic. Instead of using the voiceovers to actually dig into these characters, tonight’s episode primarily used them as a different way to deploy jokes. In some cases, this worked fine. (The Travis/Andy discussion about impotence was a highlight in this regard.) But mostly, the use of voiceovers slowed down the rapid-fire pace of the dialogue and the natural camaraderie of the cast and threw off the rhythm of the episode as a whole. Back on Scrubs, J.D.’s voice-overs were often deployed to devastatingly funny effect. Here? They felt as odd and out-of-place as the grocery store that served as the episode’s primary setting.

But mostly, tonight’s episode feels like a missed opportunity because, as Travis points out early in the installment, voiceovers are a great way to get inside a character’s head. Seeing the dissonance between what these people normally say and how they normally think would have been a valuable way to spend an episode. Instead, there really wasn’t dissonance so much as a slightly different mechanism by which to deliver the same information. We don’t really need to hear Ellie think, “I’m bored and will now fuck with Grayson.” Cougar Town fans understand that’s her primary motivation for most anything and everything. However, a voice-over that reveals, “I love all these people so much. But I’ll never tell them,” is EXACTLY the type of thing “The Criminal Mind” could have done from start to finish and actually produced a classic episode.

And really, the emotional center of tonight’s installment—Laurie telling Travis she has feelings for him—had absolutely nothing to do with the voiceovers that pervaded the episode. Removing them entirely still yields a clean throughline that needs no overdubbed explication. Travis’ sudden impotence is tied to disillusionment with his mack daddy lifestyle, and Laurie’s feelings for Travis have been simmering for weeks. Jules’ desire to not be a goodie two-shoes inspires Laurie to finally come clean with Travis, leaving the two to settle things in next week’s finale. (TBS will air the final two episodes back-to-back.) It’s more than a long time in coming, but it also had almost nothing to do with the central conceit of the episode. None of Travis’ voiceovers let us in on his condition, since he himself was unaware of its derivation. And the single Travis-related thought in Laurie’s head is played as a joke, with her wondering if his butt is paler than the rest of his skin. Keeping Travis away from the grocery store makes sense, given the journey he was on this week. But it also prevented the claustrophobia of the “grocery store jail” from instigating something between them. (Given all the smooching between unlikely romantic partners in The Breakfast Club, this wouldn’t have been the worst homage, no?)

Was any of this particularly bad or offensive? Not really. But it all reeks of missed opportunity. Laurie’s monologues are always an episode highlight. But what if her inner monologue works differently? That might have been interesting to explore. What if Tom’s outwardly optimistic reactions to any attention paid to him belie a barely-holding-it-together inner life? I could throw out another half-dozen examples, but you get the point. Ellie’s internal confession of loving her friends was such a delicious moment that it’s too bad the episode held that back as a sucker punch instead of making it the fifth or sixth new thing we learned about these characters. Referencing pop culture inside another piece of pop culture can work if it deepens our understanding of the latter through the filter of the former. Simply referencing The Breakfast Club doesn’t change how we think about the inhabitants of Cougar Town. It mostly just makes us constantly aware that we’re watching an episode of Cougar Town that’s paying homage to The Breakfast Club.


Again: That’s fine, and it probably delighted most of you more than it delighted me. Tomato, tomahto. It’s all good. But this could have been a GREAT episode that satisfied those that love metatheatrics AND the deeply emotional storytelling that Cougar Town does so well. All the ingredients were there. Occasionally, we got a taste of something complex, unexpected, and deeply satisfying. But mostly, we got simple fare served up without much fuss or inventiveness. It was enjoyable, but forgettable. That’s a recipe for a perfectly enjoyable half-hour of comedy, but not a recipe for something that lingers long after consumption. No one expects every episode of every show to be a classic. That’s unrealistic. But in deploying a classic such as The Breakfast Club, “The Criminal Mind” had a great chance to be much more than it settled for.  I doubt anyone involved with the making of this episode forgets the emotional core of that film. I just wish more of that core made its way into “The Criminal Mind” itself.

Stray observations:

  • Tonight’s title card gag: “Welcome to Cougar Town. John Hughes is a God.”
  • Laurie was waterboarded at 14 years old. Because…sure!
  • I’d feel bad about some of the reviews I’ve written this season, but if the writers hate sites like this as much as they apparently hate Yelp, I doubt they’ve noticed anyways.
  • “It’s like staring into two tiny pools of judgment.” Tom got in a lot of good lines at the expense of Grayson’s awkward demeanor tonight.
  • “You want me to be quiet and stealthy. No one will know I’m taking my baby!” Jules is apparently describing what her Lifetime Movie Of The Week would depict.
  • Ellie and Grayson have always had a “Boy, they probably think about the other more than occasionally while having sex with their respective spouses” vibe, but now we all know if Jules dies in the season finale, Andy will be saying “Come on!” when the divorce papers come.
  • This week’s new vocabulary word: “sympotence”. Who knew that condition was as contagious as yawning?
  • The Cul-de-Sac version of The Breakfast Club: “A goodie two-shoes, a freeloader, a handsome dick, a firestarter, and a criminal.”
  • Again: two-part finale next week! Get your wine ready as we say goodbye and start the countdown to season five.