In Defense Of Cougar Town

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?

Jules: Maybe.

Grayson: Lawyers?

Jules: Humans.

Ellie: Bailiffs?

Jules: Horses.

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?

Jules: Bacon!

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. TC mark

image – Cougar Town

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  • Nishant

    “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.”

    Oxymoronic start? I don’t think I know anyone who would say Cougar Town is the funniest thing on TV. Well, To each his/her own.

    • http://twitter.com/robinmalik Robin

       No.
      Funniest != best

      • Nishant

        Well yes. But funniest is supposed to be equal to “best comedy”. Right?

      • http://twitter.com/robinmalik Robin

        It depends on how you personally define “best comedy”? The author is taking into consideration other factors (“soul, depth or emotional complexity”). If you want to say that for you, the best comedy is the one that gives you the most laughs, then the funniest would also happen to be the best (but they are still not synonymous).

        Even when South Park makes me laugh way more than any other comedy, I still don’t consider it the best! :)

      • Nishant

        Okay. Fair point.

  • asia

    Thanks for this review, and I agree. Along with 2 1/2 Men and Up All Night, this is one of 3 I pay iTunes too much money to ensure I catch the latest espisode :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=849905262 Christine Schioppo

    THIS x5000

  • http://lifeisnotamovie.net Robin

    I don’t think the show is THAT funny but it is funny. I can think of several shows I laugh more during like Happy Endings or Modern Family. I think sometimes the show tries too hard and the humor can be a bit childish.

  • Jye

    Yup… Guilty pleasure… It’s one of those shows that, when I’m bored and I don’t want to invest too much thought into a show but still want a good chuckle, I can click into Hulu and know that Cougar Town will not disappoint. 

  • Dee

    I love Cougar Town! Its in-jokes and ridiculous situations are HILARIOUS, and I’ve been a fan since the beginning (well, after they ditched the whole “cougar” thing). Bits like Pig Trials make this show imho the funniest thing on tv. 

  • Pinkoctober_ox

    No word of a lie I have watched this episode since the Pilot made it on to ninjavideo way back when and have loved it ever since

  • Anonymous

    Ironically, the only reason why I know ABOUT Cougar Town, was because it was mentioned several times in Community Season 2.

  • calamari19

    I absolutely LOVE cougar town. Thank you for writing this! The pig trials bit was amazing. I read the transcript the next day at work and definitely pissed off all my co-workers with my inability to stop laughing. Not to mention: “My life is passing before my eyes. I should have drank more wine!”

    Best comedies on TV today (in no particular order): Parks & Rec, Louie, Happy Endings, Community, New Girl, and of course, Cougar Town. Six seasons and a movie for all!

  • http://twitter.com/jolizevette Joliz

    My high school english teacher is a writer/producer on that show now. I’ve still yet to watch it.

  • http://sosaysjessi.tumblr.com/ Jessi Smith

    I… I live in the town in which “Cougar Town” is based.  …Sigh.

  • A-W

    lol.

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