I’m just going to come out and say it, America: I think Cougar Town is by far the funniest thing on television right now. I don’t think it’s the best comedy on television, because it doesn’t quite have the soul, depth or emotional complexity of Community and Parks and Recreation. But unlike Community, I don’t have to deal with its self-satisfied cleverness (see: the episode devoted entirely to Abed’s Professor Spacetime room or whatever the crap that was) or side characters that the show doesn’t quite know what to do with. (Here’s looking at you, Ann Perkins.)
However, with its recent pickup by TBS, Cougar Town is frantically inventive comedy that should absolutely be on your radar, if the Onion A.V. Club’s rabid endorsement hasn’t put it there already.
Of course, the show isn’t perfect, the first half of the first season was legitimately terrible and the pilot is still one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had in front of a television screen. But by the end of the first season, Cougar Town had found its key strength: the incredible chemistry of its cast. Whatever its faults, Cougar Town works because the entire cast works together as a seamless whole, the kind of great ensemble that we used to champion back when The Office was still relevant.
Although I’m generally Team Christa Miller (who plays Ellie) in everything, I don’t think there’s a clear MVP of the show. Everyone gets their moment, and even when I think that I’m getting tired of Dan Byrd’s lack of a chin and misplaced smugness, the show goes and redeems his douchiness by making him fall for a totally-oblivious-to-his-feelings Laurie (Busy Phillips), a woman a decade and change his senior that he has absolutely no chance with. There’s nothing like unrequited love to make you not wish a character would get killed off.
The reason that this ensemble works so well together is that they genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, and that energy is infectious. In most shows about friends, you can’t always see why these people would even like each other very much. Why does the Spanish study group keep Pierce around? What exactly would Rachel, Phoebe and Ross really talk about if you put them in the same room? Why does the crew on Happy Endings put up with Dave when he’s so completely boring? But here, all of these people make total sense together, so much so that half of the lines feel improvised, even when they are not, and I have a hard time figuring out what is and is not scripted.
A few weeks ago, I was absolutely shocked to learn that the show’s “Pig Trials” sketch, currently the most absurdly hilarious thing I’ve seen on TV this year, was completely improvised. I don’t often give credit to Courteney Cox (who plays Jules) for her wit, but this exchange from “Southern Accents” floored me:
Grayson: Now, let’s pop a little wine, and talk about this supposed pig trial, hmm? I got 9,000 questions. Do they use handcuffs?
Jules: They use rope.
Ellie: Jury of their peers?
Grayson: How do they get the pig on the witness stand?
Jules: Pig ramp.
Ellie: Do they understand what people are saying?
Jules: They have interpreters.
Grayson: Jury ever fed ham?
Jules: Not if they’re kosher!
Ellie: What’s the maximum sentence?
This scene is exactly the kind of go-for-broke, no-jokes-left-behind humor that shows like Arrested Development and Happy Endings epitomize, when they are at their best. After Cougar Town’s audience started dwindling, which it very quickly did in the middle of the first season, the show took that as license to do whatever it wanted. Who cares if you go to wacky, weird places if absolutely no one is watching your show?
Not worrying about having to grab ratings is one of the reasons that HBO’s Girls, which I think might be the best thing on TV right now, can consistently piss off half of the internet and keep doing its thing. They don’t have to worry about pleasing 10 million viewers or whether Gawker understands what Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow are going for, in their weird blend of savage satire and gentle empathy. They can just worry about creating great, if misunderstood, television.
Similarly, the niche-ing of Cougar Town’s audience made it one of the strangest shows on television (where, outside of AD, can you find a show that regularly banks on incest jokes?), but also one that takes some serious risks, even threatening to piss off the viewers who love it and invest in it every week. Parts of recent episodes “Southern Accents” and “Down South” skewed seriously toward drama. Although these tonal shifts take time to humanize each the show’s characters — in a way that great shows like Gilmore Girls and Freaks and Geeks were notable for — Bill Lawrence often comes very close to testing his audience’s patience. “Southern Accents” devotes an insane amount of screen time to a weird subplot about Bobby being a racist, which starts as being irritating and potentially problematic but builds to an incredible payoff in an absolute skewering of The Blind Side. By the end of the episode, when Laurie “solves racism” before her appetizers come, I was sorry I ever doubted the show. Mea culpa, Bill Lawrence.
In the same way that the cult of Community has just made it more insular and self-referential, Cougar Town stays fresh by giving absolutely no f-cks about what anyone thinks of it. (They even regularly make fun of their own show, especially its increasingly unfortunate and now-having-nothing-to-do-with-the-plot title.) They go out and throw every joke at the screen like this episode might be their last, because (until recently) it very well may have been. This is why, in a strange way, I have mixed feelings about it being saved from cancellation by TBS, the network the show will be moving to next season.
I’m incredibly happy to see one of my favorite shows on television survive, but I hope that this doesn’t change the anarchic spirit of the show. Cougar Town was never meant to last more than half a season, and that meant that any additional episode was just gravy before it’s inevitable cancellation. It was just another chance to fly that freak flag high.
Although that specter is no longer looming over their heads, I do think that the niche-by-definition audience of basic cable will be good for it, especially since that audience is on TBS. It’s pretty hard to care when you share airspace with Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Meet the Browns.
So to the cul-de-sac crew, I raise a toast: To six seasons and an endless supply of wine. Let not a single f-ck be given.