And that brings me to Cougar Town, an awful title for a really good show. Thankfully, the series has claws and is ready to fight for its life. Even in the summer after its first season, series creator Bill Lawrence was seriously considering changing the title:
"I'd like to, and the studio has been talking about it for three reasons: One, partly as a result of common sense and partly from their research, they find too many instances of testing of people saying they would never watch a show called 'Cougar Town'...and then they screen an episode, and people go, 'Oh, I would watch this show.'"
That sums up my experience perfectly. I wasn't super excited when I heard of the new show's title and premise, thinking it had a month or two at best to survive. But when I heard it was actually good and tuned in after a few episodes, I was hooked. I was also surprised at how the show's creators could handicap their baby before it even aired (ironically, helping perpetuate a stereotype and double standard it seeks to smash). Surprisingly, the show did so well, a full second season was ordered--and that success has probably scared Lawrence away from tampering with the title.
Cougar Town comes just in time: The television landscape for female-driven sitcoms is--sadly, as always--in bad shape. The hysterical U.S. version of Kath and Kim is gone, as is the cute Samantha Who?, which easily deserved another season (I still haven't forgiven ABC). And unbeknownst to everyone, Old Christine (not as awesome as it once was, but still invigorated by the goddess that is Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was on its last legs. Enter Courteney Cox and company to save the day--and put to bed any thoughts that the "Seinfeld Curse" had turned into the "Friends Curse" following the undeserved end of Lisa Kudrow's genius The Comeback, the deserved end of Joey and the crash and burn of Cox's own Dirt.
The star plays 40-year-old Jules Cobb, a recently divorced single mom and real estate agent in the (fictional) coastal town of Gulfhaven, Florida (right by Sarasota). Her struggle to get back in the dating world is the impetus for the beginning of the season, where the show seems to force the "cougar" element simply for the sake of living up to its title: "One time!" she exclaims after bedding a younger man in the Pilot episode. "I did it one time and I'm already one of them?!" But the show quickly loosens up and allows Jules (and us) to breathe as Cougar Town morphs into a show about people young and older trying to navigate their way through the often rough dating waters. It's also about friends and family, and it's also pretty darn funny--and just risqué enough to keep you on your toes, like when Jules' son walks in on her as she's about to perform oral sex on their patio ("Why can't you just be a normal mom?!" he later asks).
That behavior explains why Travis (Dan Byrd) has his face frozen in a perpetual cringe, with frequent too-close-for-comfort conversations forced upon him:
Jules: "Do you want me to show you how to put a condom on, because we can get the rolling pin..."
Since Jules got pregnant when she was 19 and dropped out of college to raise her baby, she views their relationship a little differently--meaning sex talk is constantly on the table, much to Travis' discomfort: "C'mon, we're not like other mother/son combos! We're friends!" Both endure further embarrassment from ex-husband/father Bobby (Brian Van Holt), a former "sort-of-pro" golfer who spends his time teaching his craft at the country club when he isn't landscaping. The party dude is also down on his financial luck: He lives in Jealous Much? (a small "land boat" anchored to a concrete parking lot) and drives a golf cart instead of a car ("I'm happy about Bobby's new horn," says Jules. "The odds of my son dying in a golf cart accident just went from 'definitely' to 'probably'.") Bobby also likes to dole out questionable advice to his son on how to roll with the ladies: "There's nothin' wrong with making shower babies...it's not a sin if you're doin' it for love!"
Jules is joined in the neighborhood by best friend Ellie (Christa Miller, creator Lawrence's wife), a former cutthroat corporate attorney and the alpha dog of the "cul-de-sac crew". The high-strung, neurotic, often mean-spirited new mom ("I'm having a crisis...I hate my baby") barely has time for sex with Andy (Ian Gomez), her furry, fun-loving husband who also has a man-crush on best bud Bobby (Andy just wants to be one of the cool kids). Across the street lives pub owner Grayson (Josh Hopkins), a recently divorced bachelor who seems a little selfish: "I don't generally like...well...people." His house has a revolving door for his young conquests, sexy airheads with names like Candee and Summer (all seen departing each morning on their walk of shame to the taxi). Rounding out the ensemble is Jules' assistant Laurie (Busy Philipps), a buxom blond party girl with father and abandonment issues who isn't quite as stupid as she seems ("Sorry Jules, but you're not in a relationship yet. It has to last at least nine days before I consider it real. It's the same rule that I have for hair extensions or foster parents...").
It's the dynamics and sparks between the group that really enable Cougar Town to soar--and allow it to break free from its terrible title, focusing instead on a group of funny people as they laugh, fight and stumble their way through life and relationships (they should have just called the show Friends! Oh wait...hmm, maybe Friends and Family?). Jules jumps back into the dating pool as multi-episode arcs focus on her relationships with Josh (Nick Zano), a young hunk who needs help with his kissing technique ("Pretend that you're a curious little garden snake!"); and cocky client Jeff (Scott Foley, who, like Cox, also appeared on Scrubs).
Jules also is drawn to Grayson, at first so she can call him out on the dating double standard (much to his delight): "When women get older, it's icky! But when men get older, it's adorable!" It's an easy, obvious point the show probably had to make early on, but Cougar Town becomes a lot fresher after the first few episodes. Jules makes it her mission to crack Grayson's vapid veneer, convinced there's a more human, emotional man under his "player" persona ("Look, I know you love your smug loner image that you've created for yourself...I get it! But it's getting old!"). Despite their apparent distaste, the two seem to enjoy sparring with each other:
Jules: "Ah, married sex! You know, we're lucky...we're both divorced and attractive enough not to have to deal with that."
But Grayson's growing feelings become a surprise to him as the season progresses--and also cause some awkward moments with Bobby, who still holds a torch for Jules. Meanwhile, Ellie struggles with jealously at Jules' newfound freedom--and remains in a constant battle with nemesis Laurie over "best friend" status. Andy remains under his wife's control, the two constantly engaged in a playful battle of the sexes. And Travis? He tries to learn about growing up, "being a man" and wooing women from his elders--his nervousness and awkwardness often getting the best of him as he tries to impress Laurie ("Laurie! Rockin' the SPF 90...you want in?") and his more age-appropriate girlfriend Kylie (Spencer Locke).
Prowling in the background is Jules' fellow real estate colleague Barb (Carolyn Hennesy), the only true cougar in the show. You get the feeling the character was inserted simply to justify the title; she strikes without warning, her quips sometime falling flat ("You look like a bobsled," says Jules in the gym; "Well, I have sled down a few Bobs!" replies Barb) and sometimes forcing a dirty smile despite your better judgment: "I know you're probably impressed with what you see," Barb tells her waxer. "That, Carol, is total rejuvenation surgery. Up here, I'm 48. Below the belt, I'm 19. Now let's detail this Ferrari!" (In the bonus features, co-creator/executive producer Kevin Bregel talks about the evolution of the show, and notes of the character: "We'll let Barb be the big cougar on the show. She can be the one who can kind of exemplify what the show used to be.")
Also appearing this season are Barry Bostwick as the dad of Laurie's love interest; Beverly D'Angelo as Laurie's selfish mom; Bobby's giant scene-stealing Mastiff, a.k.a. "dog Travis" ("I name all my favorite things Travis!"); Sheryl Crow as a wine rep attracted to the emotionally frigid Grayson ("One time, I was trekking through Nepal and I had to act out 'Where can I get a tampon?' to a monk. This conversation? Harder than that."); the great Rachel Harris, unfortunately cast a little too strictly to type; and--in one of the better episodes--Lisa Kudrow as Jules' evil dermatologist, who sets her sights on Bobby. It's great to see the two hate on each other for once, and Kudrow has a blast being bitchy: "Hi Jules! Oh, you need more chardonnay...and better chardonnay." (And if you need more Phoebe reminders, Grayson frequently channels Ms. Buffay by improvising crappy songs on his guitar: "Confident in my sex-u-al-i-tay! Just like Mariska Har-gi-tay!")
A lot of the characters here are built on typical sitcom stereotypes, but the show is still able to milk laughs out of them anyway. You'll have to be okay with material that frequently visits the "men vs. women"/"what women want" well; that may sound tiring, but the cast is able to make the material fresh enough to keep you smiling. And as the season progresses, we realize there's a lot more depth to these people. And despite much of the mean-spirited quips, even the characters are aware that they're joking with each other. When push comes to shove, they have each others' backs. Cougar Town gets a lot stronger very quickly, and by the season's end it's established a solid core of funny people (the last six or so episodes are particularly solid).
The cast is outstanding--especially together. Their positive energy with each other both in front of and behind the camera is clear. That helps create a great tempo in many of the rapid-fire dialogue exchanges, where the laughs are fast and frequent:
Laurie: "I already scheduled your mani-pedi. Now, my Russian eyebrow lady was murdered...long story...so I was thinking you could just have the same girl hat does your bikini wax do your brows."
The show sparks to life during these scenes. There are also some hysterical sight gags (including one involving a sticky bun) and some random laugh-out-loud sidetracks: Jules' attempts at seduction in Episode 3 and sexualizing strangers on the street in Episode 4 backfire beautifully, while a "gay trap" contest enlivens episode 17 and a bathroom makeover provides a wealth of laughs in Episode 19. Those are just a few of the examples of the many entertaining diversions along the way.
Cox was the only Friends cast member to never be nominated for an Emmy, a crying shame (especially in the latter years where she had fine-tuned Monica's freakish yet lovable psychoses; many cried foul over her lack of a nod this year). The underrated actress carries Cougar Town perfectly, allowing Jules to be sexy and successful yet insecure; well-meaning yet overprotective; obsessive yet laid back. She's often a walking contradiction, but the most interesting people usually are. She also loves her some wine, the biggest trait she shares with Louis-Dreyfus's Old Christine. Friends fanatics will see plenty of Monica here: Jules meddles, can be a neat freak, can be vicious on the tennis court, loves to host Thanksgivings and proudly accepts the "Mother to the World!" label ("I like to help people...feeling needed is like my crack. I crave it!"). But it's not completely fair to compare the two characters. Sadly, that's the true career curse for being on such a successful show, but Cox has quickly proven she can be just as successful away from that smash hit (and she's doing it her way--she executive produces along with hubby David Arquette).
Philipps is da bomb as her sidekick, and Laurie isn't truly dumb--she just runs with it given the blonde hair, big boobs and love of parties. "Laurie's showing a house," warns Jules as she dials her cell phone, "I have to remind her not to describe everything as 'slammin'..." The character's stream-of-consciousness tangents provide some of the show's best moments, and Philipps is the show's most frequent source of quotable gems ("I bought an ugly no-jiggle bra and you didn't even notice! I was gonna take it off and throw it at you, but it has like 20 hooks...so just forget it!") . The actress also makes the best use of her face, contorting it into a variety of unforgettable expressions. She spends the early part of the season fretting over an ex-boyfriend we never see, then gets a surprise when she falls for a law student (the funny, underused Ryan Devlin, who was dropped from the aforementioned $#*! My Dad Says) that she fears is too smart for her, even if his name--Smith Frank--is a little silly ("You have a last name first name and a first name last name?!" says the turned-on Laurie. "Take me home right now!").
Laurie is ruled by her emotions, which she wears on her sleeve. That helps her stand out from the rest of the gang:
Jules: "You just love drama, and for once--thank God--you've got someone who doesn't need it."
Everyone else gets plenty of time to shine, too--Byrd has Travis' quiet exasperation down perfectly, while Gomez is so funny and lovable, it helps us forget how annoying Ellie can be ("That's why we're known as 'the nice guy' and 'the other one'"). Miller has the toughest challenge here--her character is easily the hardest to warm up to. But it's sometimes fun to watch her catch Andy in a lie, and her constant war of words with Laurie make for some of the show's sassiest moments:
Jules: "You are a foxy treat!"
The talented Hopkins has bounced around roles for a while, never getting a real chance to show us much beyond his super good looks (I miss you, Swingtown!). Let's hope he's found a home--while Grayson can be annoying at first, Hopkins is so good at still making him endearing. We understand why he drives women crazy, and he becomes more likable along the way--especially with his budding friendship with Bobby and Andy.
The show is filled with some sexy material that's almost pushing the envelope for primetime network television. It's kind of refreshing that it can go just far enough to make us smile or gasp without resorting to easy vulgarity that would ruin the gag (Sex and the City, I'm looking at you). That actually helps the show be as relatable as it is with its look at dating, marriage and parenting. Yep, that's right: If you've ever been on a date or had a crush on someone, Cougar Town is filled with truths that will speak to you (or at least make you laugh). It's a grounded effort that ultimately relies on cool characters and the bonds of family and friends to keep us coming back. Most of the episodes end with "warm and fuzzy" moments that provide a nice balance to all of the sexy shenanigans and sarcastic quips (which are actually my favorite part), making for a unique combination that not too many shows can successfully pull off. A great first season, and you get the sense that the best of Cougar Town is yet to come. (Don't disappoint me again, ABC...)
1. Pilot (aired September 23, 2009) After her recent divorce, Jules decides to put herself "out there" again, much to the embarrassment of her teenage son. Two deleted scenes (1:43) included in bonus features.
7. Don't Come Around Here No More (aired November 4, 2009) Jules always seems to be with her friends, her ex or her son, so Grayson makes her a wager that she can't spend a whole day by herself.
13. Stop Dragging My Heart Around (aired January 20, 2010) In the aftermath of her breakup with Jeff, Jules turns to Bobby for solace. Laurie discovers a common thread between Jules and Grayson, and Travis' plans for a night with girlfriend don't go exactly as planned.
19. Everything Man (aired March 31, 2010) Sarah helps Grayson write a new song, but Jules advises him not to act so needy around her. Jules' new bathroom gets rave reviews. One deleted scene (:13) included in bonus features.
Up next are 15 deleted scenes (see Episode Guide above for more details), good for a few laughs (of most interest is the first deleted scene from the Pilot, which has Grayson as a therapist). The bloopers reel (1:45) is disappointing in length and content, although a few laughs sneak through. You'll probably get the most enjoyment out of Saber-Tooth Tiger Town (1:54), a hysterical parody that aired on Jimmy Kimmel Live that casts Cloris Leachman in the lead role (but it's guest star Shirley Jones that gets the biggest laugh). Next comes the "My Sexuality" Music Video (:52), a pretty pointless montage that doesn't add much beyond what the show gives us.
The worst entry comes next: Ask Barb is a collection of video clips from "Barb's Blog" on ABC's Cougar Town website. The nine segments (totaling roughly 13 minutes) feature Carolyn Hennesy in character as the show's only cougar, answering phony viewer questions that set up awful and obvious punch lines: "Dear Barb: What's the difference between you and the Titanic?" Answers Barb: "Only 1,200 people went down on the Titanic!" Repeat that about 30 times, bang your head against the wall and then you'll have an idea of what it's like. Avoid. I'm surprised the creators would even want to associate such content with the show; this kind of easy, uninspired material is exactly what people feared Cougar Town would be (and is probably why some won't give it a chance). Why feed the stereotype?
Equally lame is Stroking It with Bobby Cobb, four clips (totaling roughly 4 minutes) featuring Brian Van Holt in character on the golf course, where he gives lessons that are just an excuse to suggestively use words like "stroke", "holes" and "wood". (Ian Gomez is also on hand as Andy). Trailers round out the package.