Wednesday, February 15, 2012

TV Report Card: Cougar Town 3x01 - "Ain't Love Strange"

Cougar Town is back, ladies and gentlemen!  With exactly as many cougars as they had before their eight-month hiatus: zero.  (Unless you count Jules and Laurie's attraction to dirty long hairs.)  No, Cougar Town is the best show on television that you're not watching, complete with a terrible name that's the reason you're not watching and the reason that the creators of Cougar Town include a self-deprecating disclaimer about it on every title card.  We all know the title sucks, so let's just move on and enjoy the show, yes?

Season Three began with "Ain't Love Strange," and after I finished stress-crying from the joy of the show returning to my life, I could actually cry at the episode itself!  That's right, I got a little teary-eyed at the end.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  "Ain't Love Strange" reintroduced the gang for anybody who may not be in the know: these are adults who sit around and drink all the time.  So much so that Jules, Courteney Cox's character, wants to change their habits... by inventing wine necklaces so that they have free use of their hands.  Immediately, Cougar Town wasn't missing a beat.

The main storyline of the hour was in the fallout from Grayson's suggestion that Jules is predictable.  Of course, everyone else backs up this claim, with a hilarious series of pantomimes, that results in Grayson in the doghouse and Laurie and Ellie getting off scot-free.  Jules claims to want surprise in her life, but Grayson has her (slightly longer) morning routine memorized to a tee, which she worries makes her boring.  Where most shows would fall easily into a well-worn trap of dwelling on this conflict through arguments, or throwing out punchline after punchline, Cougar Town instead supplies kooky and original gags that illustrate the idea without being formulaic.  Funnily enough, the show really does zag when you think it'll zig, and it keeps the pace quick and the comedy fresh.

Even throwaway jokes circle back around with new meaning - like Jules trying out her new one-two-punch of sneezing followed by a cute noise.  We saw it happen twice without consequence, but the third time it got her caught by the police (or Grayson pretending to be the police, rather).  Jules' mouthguard made it into the Slightly Longer Morning Routine Song twice, and the third time we saw it, she was using it as leverage in an argument with Grayson, to lighten the tone of the scene.  Say, is this also the Comedy Rule of Threes?  Damn, Cougar Town, it's like you're professionals or something!

The second storyline in "Ain't Love Strange" went to Ellie and Andy, and the struggle for them to deal with the fact that they're apparently raising a Devil Baby.  Stan, who grew a crap-ton since we last saw him, terrorizes his parents, and apparently wanders the neighborhood to smash things with a hammer when he gets angry.  Not gonna lie, I love that the show treated Stan kind of like a horror villain - we didn't really see him take action, but we saw him carrying a hammer, and we saw the slashed pillows, and the demon artwork on the fridge... making Ellie and Andy's real terror all the funnier.  Plus, a baby walking around with a hammer is funny.  I mean, when it's not real.

Laurie intersected with Ellie and Andy's storyline, first to fuel their fears, in classic Laurie style, then to bond with Stan and cause Ellie to worry that Stan could end up just like Laurie.  (It bears stating that Laurie is currently wearing an ankle bracelet after she punctured some lady's eardrum during a spiritual/sexual retreat gone wrong.  Eat Pray Tampa, indeed.)  But then the show smartly switched gears, as it does, and gave Laurie and Ellie a genuine scene to resolve the storyline: Laurie assured Ellie that Stan won't turn out like her, because he has two amazing parents, whereas Laurie had a lot of bum stepdads.  See, just because Ellie isn't always a lovely person, and Laurie is flirting dangerously with a "third strike" from the law, doesn't mean that they can't bond and be genuine friends.

The final storyline in "Ain't Love Strange" belonged to Travis and Bobby, whose father-son storylines get stronger and stronger.  It'd be easy to mine Bobby's shortcomings as a parent, and give the bulk of that angst to Travis.  But Cougar Town does the reverse, which is a smart move: Bobby is written as completely aware of his self-perceived failures as a parent, and worries that Travis thinks he doesn't owe his dad anything.  See, Bobby needs Travis to take in his dog (who, naturally, is named Dog Travis) and goes through the trouble to try and convince him, instead of just asking - because he's afraid Travis will say no.  Inversing these character's emotions works because it's unexpected, and defies a lot of comedy traditions: Bobby gets to be self-aware, which he usually is not, and Travis gets to be respectful of his dad through action, thereby allowing for some wiggle room on the jokes he can make during the rest of the episode.

Of course, Bobby and Travis' dilemma got the same type of Cougar Town treatment, with the best payoff in Travis' college-house green screen providing the rainy backdrop to the father and son reunion.  Andy would pay $12 to see that, and so would I!  There was also, of course, the previous incarnation of green-screening: Andy and Bobby holding hands and pretending to be flying while they worked out the real reasons that Bobby didn't want to ask Travis to take the dog.  Here, it was touching to see absurdism mixed with genuine emotions in order to balance out what could be saccharine.  Not only that, but the jokes weren't embedded in Bobby and Travis' flawed relationship, but rather in how the characters negotiated that like real human beings who care about one another.  It works out to be funnier, and more touching at the same time - a win-win!

At the end of the hour, Jules' attempts to precisionally gain revengenceance on her greasy-haired nemeses resulted in a true surprise: turns out Grayson, knowing full well how Jules would react to every step of the skater boys feud, had staged the whole scenario so he could propose to his girlfriend in the only fairy tale setting that involves toilet paper.  I adored the simplicity of his proposal, and I loved as well that Jules prefaced her answer with, "I'm gonna say yes, so don't get nervous."  And don't worry, Jules, you're a crazy person - you could never be boring.  (This is of course proven by the episode's tag, which featured Grayson gamely going along with the green screen recreation of his proposal in full romance-novel costume set against the beautifully digital backdrop of the Swiss Alps.  I love that Grayson goes along with Jules' crazy just as much as he pokes fun of her for it, and that it's clear he loves that about her.  Smart relationship plotting, Bill Lawrence.  Bring on the wedding!)

So, Cougar Town is back in our lives, with its trademark absurdism, humanity, and fantastic running jokes.  ABC did us a solid by bringing it back earlier than intended, but it's hard to believe that it can retain any audience from Last Man Standing, which doesn't seem congruent to anything Cougar Town fans would watch.  But I have hope!  Revengeance will be mine!  ...or something.  Regardless, you should be watching this show, no matter what name is on the title card.

The Best Jokes...
  • The repeated assessment of what the gang "should" be - everybody minus Bobby and Laurie, then just Ellie and Julie, then Ellie deciding it should just be Ellie.
  • That damn green screen.  So many good jokes out of that one piece.
  • "Oh no, it's the fuzz!"
  • Seeing the wine necklaces a second time in the episode.
  • Bobby admitting that he's susceptible to picking up other people's emotions, which Travis immediately picks up on and tries to get Bobby to leave by yawning and claiming he's really tired.  Hilariously, Bobby starts to yawn uncontrollably.
  • Sneezing with a cute noise tacked on the end... it's advised by Jules' therapist!  (Don't expect her to tell him the truth all the time, though.)
  •  The entirety of Laurie's scene with Andy and Laurie about Stan's fridge artwork.  Seriously.  Every little part of it.

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