by: Patrick Gill and Nico Lang
I wasn’t there in the beginning. I heard murmurs of Cougar Town‘s wobbly conceit, wonky tone and inability to flesh out its characters. I thought it was a strange premise that couldn’t survive, let alone hold an audience for more than a few raunchy jokes about pre-menopause. But I am watching now, getting wine buzzed, laughing loudly as I watch. I am completely okay with this.
Cougar Town came to me by way of being constantly referenced — for being both hilarious and for its cult — on Community. At first I thought they may have been razzing the show, yet the jokes and the name checks kept on coming, and the character Abed’s love for this seemingly ill-fated yet beloved show became more apparent as genuine. (I think Community sees itself as a strange step-sister of CT.) I couldn’t understand it. Cougar Town, honestly, Cougar Town? How could this be? I couldn’t bring myself to watch an episode, I thought I was above it.
Unfounded snark doesn’t look good on me, much like skinny jeans—all you get is a distasteful amount of ass and under-ass because I split the seams. I realized I couldn’t sneer at something for so long without seeing it. Nico and I decided — on a night in which we started watching Jack and Jill (a horror that continues to haunt me) and ended up going to see John Carter (which I love and will forever fight for) — that maybe we should watch Cougar Town and make it a “so bad it’s good” entertainment trifecta. My epiphany came halfway through the episode: this was not terrible; in fact, it was going for broke and coming out the other end hysterical.
I revisited it the next day, thinking maybe I just was in love due to comparison. My first run at Jack and Jill had left me mentally bruised and broken, maybe I was just using Cougar Town to recover, giving it more credit than it deserved. I sat down, sober, and watched some of the episodes from Season 3. I found it’s wit and humor untouched by sobriety. I kept on laughing.
There are many reasons to love this show: Christa Miller’s acerbic quips, its workmanlike effort to make one of the attractive cast members (Josh Hopkins) as unattractive as possible and the constant modification of cliched phrases (SLAP OUT OF IT) , but I will write briefly about one very close to me: Busy Phillips.
Phillips’ character, Laurie Keller, could have been a one-note blonde joke. They could have just made her just stupid and sleazily sexualized — and in truth she is written as less intelligent and more promiscuous than a lot of the cast, yet this is not a flaw. It’s just a part of her. Beyond that, she owns who she is and enjoys her life. She’s kooky, she wears loud prints with bright red lips and she is damn proud of all she is and can be. Though she is not traditionally intelligent she is taps into an emotional intelligence and caring place, at times being the emotional core of the ensemble.
I appreciate Laurie Keller’s presence on television. As a person who considers himself clever, but never smart, polite but tactless, I see a lot of myself in her. We both bake cakes and get overly excited and proclaim “What What?!” as an adequate method of showing approval; we both have a tender sides that are often covered by loud and exuberant shells. Laurie is ridiculous, and beloved for this reason, not in a limiting way, but in a way that you can laugh with, without hesitation.
I’m just going to come out and say it, America: I think Cougar Town is far and away 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 it’s 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.
Whatever it’s 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 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, 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 chemistry is palpable. In most shows about friends, you can’t always see why these people would be friends or 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 exactly 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 really hard time discerning what is and is not scripted. A few weeks ago, I was absolutely shocked to learn that the show’s Pig Trials segment, 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 9000 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 interpretors.”
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 basically 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, in a way that was disconcerting at first, especially in the case of the latter. Each episode takes time to go on their chosen routes, so much so that it almost tests audience patience. Southern Accents devotes an insane amount of screen time to a weird subplot about Bobby being a racist, that starts off 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 fucks 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 basic cable will be good for it, especially since that audience is on TBS. It’s pretty hard to give fucks 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 fuck be given.
Nico Lang is the Co-Creator and Co-Editor of In Our Words and a graduate student in DePaul University’s Media & Cinema Studies program. Lang is a Change Coordinator for LGBT Change, the Co-Founder of Chicago’s Queer Intercollegiate Alliance and a columnist for HEAVEMedia. At HEAVE, Nico writes a column on film called Found Footage and talks about nerd stuff on a weekly podcast called Pod People. Elsewhere in podcasting, Lang hosts Broad Shoulders, a monthly podcast for Chicago’s Live Lit community. Nico is also a contributor at Thought Catalog and the Huffington Post and has been featured in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, the New Gay and on their mother’s refrigerator. Follow Nico on Twitter @Nico_Lang or on the Facebook.
Patrick Gill is the Co-Creator of In Our Words, as well as the Co-Founder and Host of the queer reading series All The Writers I Know. He is a poet, essayist, short story writer and occasional performer. Patrick writes the column “B*tch, I’m Miley Cyrus” for HEAVEMedia, is an alumnus of DePaul, has developed LGBTQ-centered anti-bullying curricula for CPS schools and is currently working on LGBTQ friendly children’s books. Patrick is doing so in order to be cute and endearing once again. He is a semi-professional word-hustler and a burrito hunter. His mother thinks everything he is doing is a fun thing to do.