Cougar Town returns, and it's worth a weekly visit


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Cougar Town returns from a ten-week hiatus with an episode tomorrow (9:30 p.m. EST / 8:30 p.m. CST, after Dancing with The Stars), before settling back into its usual slot at the same time on Wednesday. You already know this if you're a regular CT watcher, and you almost certainly do not know this if you're virtually anyone else on the planet.

Despite ABC's apparently indifferent promotion (or lack thereof), Cougar Town is simply one of the funniest shows in prime time right now, and given the state of prime time comedies in 2011, that's saying something. Problem is, depressingly few people know this. It's been renewed for a third season, but it remains something of a forgotten spot in ABC's line-up. I really, really hope this changes.

Like That '70s Show, Cougar Town began life with a high-concept hook - albeit a faddish and dubious one - which it quickly jettisoned in order to focus on the rapport of its charming cast. This is fairly common for a sitcom: it needs an interesting premise to get the attention of first a network and then an audience, but in the long term it will live or die solely on the strength of its characters and its jokes. Once the gimmick has faded - whether its roller disco or a divorcee reluctantly on the prowl - are viewers left with a group of people they'll want to spend 22 minutes with every week?

That question isn't just the heart of Cougar Town, it's the show's brains, its guts, its entire corpus. More than any other sitcom on the air, watching Cougar Town is about hanging out with a funny, lackadaisical bunch and their bottomless supply of wine. It arguably has a stronger claim than Seinfeld did to the title "The Show About Nothing." Most weeks, plot is entirely incidental here. The characters invent games (like movie title mash-ups as in the clip above, or Penny Can, which is exactly what it sounds like) or dares (who can stay awake the longest) to entertain themselves. It's basically a sweet, goofy version of dorm life, but with a Florida cul-de-sac standing in for the dorm and inhabited by (nominal) grown-ups.

The show obviously isn't for everyone (no show is). How much you'll enjoy Cougar Town depends on on how entertained you are by antics like two people trying to creatively out-scare one another, and by off-kilter one-liners ("Big J owns a taco stand across the street. He keeps a pencil in his neck fat, so he's clearly smart.").

But there's also a healthy amount of sweetness. Each episode usually pivots slightly towards sentimentality in the third act, though rarely as blatantly as, say, its lead-in Modern Family tends to do. The characters grow and change by inches. They aren't caricatures, like the denizens of 30 Rock, although they often behave in cartoonish ways. Along with Kevin Biegel, the show was co-created by Bill Lawrence, of Spin City and Scrubs fame, and in its comic tone and its balance between zany and sweet, it echoes the best moments of the latter show.

Many people who have never seen Cougar Town still think of it as Courteney Cox's post-Friends vehicle, but this is truly an ensemble show. Her Jules, the erstwhile eponymous "cougar," is indisputably the center of the gang's gravity. She's often high-strung and fantastically narcissistic, but she also sets the tone for the Cul-De-Sac Crew, a reservoir of loyalty and protectiveness (and, again, wine) for a tight-knit group navigating middle age together.

The most amusing moments frequently come from the lovable kooks in Jules's orbit: best friend Ellie (Christa Miller, flexing the same caustic wit she mastered as Jordan on Scrubs); Ellie's happy-go-lucky husband Andy (Ian Gomez), the eternally sunny yin to her misanthropic yang; Bobby (Brian Van Holt), Jules's genially white-trash ex-husband ("His garbage disposal is a dog. He eats cereal out of a turtle shell. His bottle opener is a dog."); flighty co-worker Laurie (Busy Philipps, as ever one of TV's premier comic dynamos); teenage son Travis (Dan Byrd), delivering doses of deadpan maturity to his manic elders; and Grayson (Josh Hopkins), Jules's beau and frequent straight-man to her outlandish neuroses.

This is a tremendous era for television comedies. The current landscape boasts one of the richest, deepest fields ever - and Cougar Town most assuredly fits in that mix. I encourage anyone with a soft spot for silliness to tune in Monday at 9:30 p.m. EST / 8:30 p.m. CST, and Wednesdays in that same time slot, and give this too-little-seen gem a try.

Other notes:
  • Be sure to watch for the always entertaining title card gag, in which the show's unfortunate title is accompanied by a self-effacing tag ("Not What The Show Is," "It's Okay To Watch A Show Called," etc.). Here's a great site collecting them all.
  • I'll remind you all again: Busy Philipps is on this show, guys. Did you watch Freaks and Geeks? Of course you did. Did you love Kim Kelly? Of course you did. Do you want to see Busy Philipps on your TV on a weekly basis? OF COURSE YOU DO.
  • Oh, and every episode (like tonight's "Walls" and Wednesday's "Baby's A Rock 'n' Roller") is named after a song by native Floridian Tom Petty. If that's not awesome enough for you, I have no further arguments to make.

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