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Cougar Town Remains a Delightful Vacation From the World

The series embodied the kind of tacky Floridian comfort you'd find in a Jimmy Buffett song.
  • Cougar Town (Photo: Everett Collection)
    Cougar Town (Photo: Everett Collection)

    A whopping 15 years ago, a new television series opened with Courteney Cox hopping out of the shower to Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” and playing with the folds of her skin and the fat on her body, semi-horrified to realize she’s getting “old.” Seconds later, her character is at a high school football game talking about how hot one young man is and betting with her friend on whether another attendee her age is with her son or a young boyfriend.

    And so began Cougar Town, a show that initially saw its lead Jules Cobb (Cox) diving into the world of cougars. Meant to be a series about dating in your 40s after being a mother and wife in your 20s and 30s, the Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence show (that served as a follow-up to their Scrubs era) almost instantly dropped its premise. Past sitcoms have certainly milked the idea of age differences in affairs and of an “older” person dating a “younger” one, particularly when the child of the former is of the same age as their new partner to spice things up. But to create a series that was just about that seemed like a foolish effort.

    Cougar Town was infinitely more interested in the familial dynamics among its core cast members, all of whom either resided within the show’s Floridian cul-de-sac (in the fake city of Gulfhaven, which is essentially Sarasota), or were close pals with someone who did. The aptly named “cul-de-sac crew” consisted of Jules and her son Travis (Dan Byrd), her semi-homeless ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt), her playboy neighbor Grayson (Josh Hopkins), her antagonistic best friend Ellie (Christa Miller) and sweet husband Andy (Ian Gomez), her perpetually ridiculous co-worker Laurie (Busy Philipps), and their creepy neighbor Tom (Bob Clendenin).

    These relationships were all neatly drawn from the get-go, down to the will-they/won’t-they pull of characters like Laurie and Travis, or Jules and Grayson, popping up at the top of the series. The series had no interest in trying to shake up what it established perfectly, instead remaining happy to focus on being funny and spending time with the gang. But they were all sidelined, for a brief time, in order to fixate on one thing: a hot mom boning hot young guys.

    The thing is, Cougar Town could never even commit to that. Even in Season 1, Jules was essentially a one-man woman, dating Josh (Nick Zano) for a short period of time before she dropped him for wanting too much of a commitment. It was foolish, really, to think that the premise of a woman dating younger men could sustain an ongoing sitcom without just rehashing tried-and-true plots that other shows had already done over and over. Instead, Cougar Town became about the friendships that already existed. It was a show about nothing in particular, à la Seinfeld, save for the crew’s deep obsession with wine.

    Like any other family sitcom, Cougar Town was about the people at its core and how much love they had for each other, but without ever sacrificing the fact that they all hate each other just a little bit. Think of it in the same vein as Reba or Married… With Children; there’s a clear connection between these people, but there’s also a relentless willingness to make fun of each other. It’s in Ellie calling Laurie a tramp, in Jules making fun of Grayson’s one night stands, in Travis resenting his father’s “white trash” presence in his “faux intellectual” life. Families, whether traditional or chosen (as is the unique mix of Cougar Town), are the people that are there for you when you’re down, sure, but they’ve got to complain about you the second you’re not looking as well.

    And a cozy, but barbed, family sitcom is precisely the perfect formula that Cougar Town achieved beginning with its second season. Everyone on the show had a love-hate relationship that the writers could mine for ridiculous plotting. The show would introduce and exploit inside jokes until they were so insufferable they needed to die, and, once that happened, they’d make fun of the fact that they killed the joke.

    These ever-expanding bits were less of a “hat on a hat” — be it the game Penny Can, the replacement of the opening credits title with a new gag like “We Pretend Cougar Town (...Is Called Wine Time),” or the In Memoriam tributes to broken wine glasses – and a brilliant showcase of how strong joke writing and repetition could make something rewarding. They evolve from the simple (i.e. “throwing a penny into a can”), into the unreasonably silly (new rules including “a rim shot gets you flicked in the ear”), and then into the completely absurd (Lou Diamond Phillips becoming Penny Can’s spokesman).

    Cougar Town was an often ridiculous series, but never afraid to be itself, even after being canceled and moving from ABC to TBS to survive (and thrive) for another three seasons, making it to over a hundred episodes. Where some of Bill Lawrence’s later works — Ted Lasso most notably — would succumb to their most saccharine urges and forget to work in actual comedy, Cougar Town stayed true to itself and its sense of humor. The series knew that wearing its heart on its sleeve did not have to come at the expense of solid storylines, most of which were limited to one episode and maintained much of the same energy as Scrubs did in its best days (and, unsurprisingly, featured its fair share of cameos from that series’s cast members, as well as three of Cox’s Friends).

    Where most trips to Florida are something of a humid nightmare, like those featured in films like Wild Things or Zola, every episode of Cougar Town was a delightful little vacation from the world. The series embodied the kind of tacky Floridian comfort you’d find in a Jimmy Buffett song: meeting up at a friend’s place for a drink, listening to silly little songs all day, or discovering a fresh insult to hurl at a tourist. It’ll never get old because it was content to be a consistently charming series that even characters from other shows professed their adoration for.

    Even nine years after it came to a close — with a finale that sees Jules’ loved ones trick her into believing she’s lost them all, only to truly show her how much she means to all of them — there’s something comforting about gathering around with the cul-de-sac crew and downing a glass of wine or ten.

    Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.

    TOPICS: Cougar Town, ABC, TBS, Bill Lawrence, Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Courteney Cox