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Why You Should Pour a Glass of Wine and Watch 'Cougar Town'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 6th 2010 3:15PM
TV gods, save us from high-concept comedies.

Apparently the ABC executives who bought 'Awkward Family Photos' haven't learned anything from the non-success of '$#*! My Dad Says,' a strained show based on a Twitter feed. Why should we think a show based on a book about dorky pictures will fare any better?

The highly enjoyable 'Cougar Town' (9:30PM ET Wednesday, ABC), on the other hand, is an object lesson in how much more satisfying a comedy can be when it rejects its high-concept roots and focuses on creating a home for an amusing collection of individuals.

When it began, 'Cougar Town' had all the appeal of a brittle cocktail party in a square subdivision. Jules Cobbs' efforts to date younger men made her look desperate, and her friends came off as shrieky and mean. None of the relationships on the show felt grounded in the realities of middle age.

What a difference a year makes. Now 'Cougar Town' is as comfy as your favorite pair of jeans, and the show isn't really about a divorcee trying to date younger men. Like any comedy worth the name, it simply gives the audience a chance to hang out with some amusing people for half an hour a week.

"If somebody asked me what the show was now, I would say it's about a bunch of people who would all be very lonely if not for each other," co-creator Bill Lawrence said in his guest appearance on this week's 'Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan' podcast. "I think this is a story about adult friendship and how we while away the time."

In that podcast, Lawrence talked about the mistakes he made with 'Cougar Town.' First, he said, he and co-creator Kevin Beigel hired a really good cast but then put Jules by herself in various dating stories.

"My experience in TV tells me you never really ... care about that character that's only going to be on for one week," Lawrence noted.

The second mistake: Selling a comedy based on a Big Idea. Despite the success of 'Modern Family' -- which is basically a traditional family sitcom updated with a single-camera shooting style -- TV executives apparently still want high-concept comedies. But Lawrence realized early on in the first season that that concept wasn't really playing to the strengths of his cast and his writers (and that writing staff includes a lot of women, which I think helped make the portrayals of Jules and her friends much more believable).

"I was trying to lean into the edginess of my pitch and it was a mistake," Lawrence said of the show's early days. "You often see pilots being sold by a 24-year old movie writer, someone who's never done TV before, and you'll read, 'Oh, it's such a great idea.' But in television, I think that's a bunch of hooey. I think TV is about the execution and not about the idea."

Indeed, there are far too many dramas and comedies that have Big Ideas in the pilot, but then it becomes clear that nobody has a strong idea about where to take the show next (or, worse yet, there are too many ideas about where to go next, all of which battle for supremacy). Fortunately, Lawrence, who also created the long-running comedy 'Scrubs,' had experience at creating eccentric but basically lovable ensembles, and the show quickly evolved in that direction.

'Cougar Town' feels far more relaxed now that Jules has happily settled down as the girlfriend of her neighbor, Grayson (Josh Hopkins). Courteney Cox brings both likability and an edge of neediness to many of her roles, and Jules' controlling side is much funnier when she's fussing about her relationship or her son going off to college, not trying to pick up guys (talk about awkward).

And while the rest of the characters on the show are recognizable types -- the bickering couple next door, the ditzy assistant, the doltish dude, the gawky nerd -- the actors inhabit their roles so completely that the winos who gather at Jules' house never seem one-dimensional. Brian Van Holt has been a particular pleasure as Jules' ex-husband, Bobby; he's never simply the Dumb Guy, he's more of a not-very-bright guy with a big heart.

The whole enterprise works -- and the more cruel barbs slide by -- because the writers make it clear that these people enjoy hanging out with each other. And though that regular-sized idea was enough of an idea to sustain many excellent comedies for years, that pitch might not go over well these days.

As Lawrence said, "I probably couldn't go in and go, 'Hey, it's a bunch of people hanging out in a bar.' ... You couldn't sell 'Cheers' nowadays."

That is a lamentable proposition.

At least, thanks to 'Cougar Town,' we can still watch television characters drink too much from the comfort of our couches.

Note: The second photo on this story is of Cox with Ken Jenkins of 'Scrubs,' who'll play Jules' father in the Oct. 27 episode.

For more from Bill Lawrence, check out Joel Keller's interview with him here, here and here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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"Dad Says" actually is getting relatively decent ratings and is winning its timeslot. So to call it a "non-success" is a bit of a stretch. Sure, it's not as successful as Big Bang Theory, and it could continue to drop in the future - by right now it looks like a decent gamble on CBS' part.

October 07 2010 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to rhys's comment

I think Mo was suggesting that Sh*t doesn't have the creativity and the execution behind it that a show like Cougar Town does. Really, the show is a one note joke about how the dad is offensive because he speaks his mind. That's not a show...it's twitter

October 08 2010 at 11:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cougar Town is hilarious! It is so much better now that it's about a group of friends and neighbors hanging out, drinking wine and doing stupid stuff, than it was when it was about Courtney Cox's character dating much younger men.

All of the characters have their funny moments but Brian Van Holt's Bobby Cobb makes me smile every time he is on screen. When the show began, I thought he was the weakest link. No longer.

And, really, I don't know that their is a weakest link. Whether they're giving Travis a hard time about having arms like pool cues, or Grayson have tiny eyes, or Jules being continually on the crazy train, or Laurie getting lost in her own brain, you can tell that deep down, these people really care about each other. And that's just lovely.

October 07 2010 at 3:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The show is incredibly broad. It's practically an at-home '30 Rock'. The writing is sharp and the cast has great chemistry. Definitely the best out of the four ABC Wednesday comedies.

October 06 2010 at 10:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Much as I'm in favor of any show that breaks the mold, I don't think Cougar Town is one of them. The characters are all outsize, cartoonish caricatures, and some of the lines and situations are just plain cringe-worthy (and not in a good way, like on The Office). I'll take the more grounded, realistic "The Middle" any day.

October 06 2010 at 3:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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