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A Few Thoughts on the Season Finales of 'Cougar Town' and 'Modern Family'

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 26th 2011 11:30AM
It's odd to be saying goodbye to 'Cougar Town,' which left the TV schedule for several months in the middle of the season. It feels as though we just got back into the groove again with the Cul De Sac Crew, and now they're gone again.

Still, Wednesday's hourlong season finale was a fitting and fun finish to the show's second season, which saw 'Cougar Town' solidify its status as one of the best comedies on television. I've also got a few thoughts on the season finale of 'Modern Family,' which wrapped up a slightly more erratic second season Wednesday as well.

I seem to be comparing every show to 'Justified' lately (the FX show's amazing second season is lingering in my mind, not surprisingly), and I can see how it might be especially weird for me to compare 'Cougar Town' to 'Justified.' I certainly wouldn't make the claim that the shows have much in common, aside from a winning devotion to irreverence.

What unites these shows is that they get a lot of things right -- big things, medium-sized things and little things. When it comes to the chronicles of the Cul De Sac Crew and the residents of Harlan, Kentucky, each show is somehow greater than the sum of its finely tuned parts. Both 'Cougar Town' and 'Justified' have done what my favorite shows tend to do -- they've created immersive worlds that feel complete, rich and full of interesting details. When you watch those shows, you're able to quickly and completely buy in to whatever the characters are up to, and both shows rarely let me down in either the character realm or the storytelling arena. Both can be quite funny, obviously, and 'Cougar Town's' devotion to silliness is as admirable as 'Justified's' rigorous examination of the true meaning of justice.

Some half-hour comedies go a bit soggy when they have to fill out a full hour ('The Office' has often been guilty of this), but 'Cougar Town's' hourlong season finale allowed the show to have a lot of fun with grace notes that would have been cut short had the gang's trip to Hawaii been confined to 30 minutes. We got lots of "The Buck" from 'Scrubs' playing the saddest pop songs in the world, several moments where the characters couldn't quite believe that Tom had followed them to Hawaii, a few appearances from Big Kimo, as well as many life observations that ring very true. (I have to agree with the hard-hearted Ellie -- what is the point of spending time with vacation acquaintances you'll never see again? And what is it about the closed-circuit TV channel in the hotel that makes it so addictive?)

But even Ellie got to show her nicer side to Tom, and given that the finale had room to breathe, everyone got a chance to show a few different colors. It crushed Laurie to hoodwink Travis into coming back home, and Busy Philipps played Laurie's very real sadness well (and of course, her Lifetime movie declaration about not giving up on the boy was terrific also).

In amongst the funny observations and the goofball moments, there were real stakes for almost all the characters, even Tom, who, by this point, is more or less a semi-official member of the gang (and hey, why not -- he's maybe a little creepy, but his willingness to act as the gang's courier and message boy has its uses).

If I had one (smallish) problem with the finale, it's that I couldn't quite believe that Grayson would allow the baby issue to take center stage when Jules was in the middle of the crisis with Travis. There have been references to Grayson's desire to have children for quite some time now -- I'm not saying 'Cougar Town' hasn't built that into the DNA of the show. I'm just saying that Grayson seems like the kind of perceptive guy who truly would have put the brakes on that discussion well before they got to Hawaii, given how much distress Jules was in. I'm not saying the baby issue or the Travis problem weren't real and good issues for the show to explore, I just think that the was obviously a big effort to get them both to come to a head in the finale, but those two issues and their connection to each other could have been finessed a little better.

Another minor thing: I wish Laurie and Travis' date had gotten more screen time. That aspect of the finale felt tentative, and given the lingering attraction between those two, it would have been nice to get more of a sense of what went on between them that day and if a real romance could ever blossom. Not that I'm saying they have to get together any time soon -- I just think there's an important bond there, and I would have liked to seen less of a slapdash quality to that aspect of the episode. It just felt rushed and a little off, as if the show was uncertain about whether to commit to exploring that attraction even in a minor way.

Still, those are minor quibbles. 'Cougar Town,' like 'Modern Family' before it, managed to take its characters to Hawaii without losing sight of what makes the show enjoyable. I loved the ongoing thread involving the '80s sunglasses, the appearance by Abed from 'Community' (you can rewatch that scene here), the knocking language between Andy and Bobby, the new game of Coco Rock. Even if you just watch this show for the superficial jokes, it's quite entertaining.

But on an emotional level, the episode delivered as well. Of the two ABC comedy finales I watched Wednesday, 'Cougar Town' was certainly more pleasing in that regard than 'Modern Family.' The latter show provided a sort of greatest-hits tribute to the second season, with many callbacks to notable previous episodes. All in all, it was a reasonably decent half-hour, but it wasn't nearly as emotionally engaging as the show's first-season finale, which was damned near flawless (Joel Keller, in his recap, also thought that the season 2 'Modern Family' finale was OK but not one of the show's stronger outings). But whatever happened in the finale, the bigger issue is, 'Modern Family' doesn't give me the sense that the characters are heading anywhere in particular.

Sure, 'Modern Family' has always consciously avoided anything that smacked of serialization (though it does make references to things that have happened in the past). I completely understand and even respect that position. And there is growth in various relationships -- Jay and Manny have come to love and understand each other much more over time, and even Haley and Alex have reached a sort of detente, to cite just two examples.

I'd agree with many critics who'd say that one of the biggest weaknesses of 'Modern Family' is that it is determined to give story lines to all three family units, even when not all of them are working in a given week. Especially in the second half of the current season, there were some 'Modern Family' story lines that were flat-out boring or unfunny. But the bigger issue for me is that, unlike 'Cougar Town' and 'Parks and Recreation,' 'Modern Family' doesn't have stakes that increase over time for the characters.

That's OK if the comedy is very sharp and the observations about marriage and family life are spot-on and wickedly perfect (and there have been many 'Modern Family' story lines that have done just that this season). But if those aspects of the show falter, it's hard to stay invested in what's happening on the screen if the stakes feel illusory, wobbly or non-existent. For instance, last week we didn't get a reasonable exploration of why Jay wanted to have Botox; the idea of an Alpha male like Jay experiencing that kind of vanity and insecurity was an intriguing one, but the story line was basically reduced to a series of throwaway gags involving various reactions to his face.

The Alex-Haley story last week had more resonance than most, and that's in large part because it felt like it was a culmination of some long-simmering sibling issues. It wasn't just something that was invented out of whole cloth that week, and it's good that the show let Alex and Haley carry their own thread, as they have in a couple of other episodes. Maybe one way to get past the flatness that affected certain aspects of season 2 would be to put together unusual or effective character combinations. For instance, 'Modern Family' could do a lot more with Manny and Luke, who always provide comedy gold, and the combinations of Jay and Phil are also very funny together. (Another combo that just came to mind: Why not more Cam-Gloria? There's a ton of untapped potential there.)

Both shows can create emotionally affecting comedy, but 'Cougar Town' frequently does so over the course of a few episodes or even a season, not just within individual episodes, so the payoffs are more meaningful. It can take a goof like Bobby Cobb and makes his loneliness and his status as the third wheel in Ellie and Andy's relationship both sweet and moving. All season long, Bobby has been going through a transition not unlike his son's; the inventor of Penny Can is evolving from irresponsible ne'er-do-well to real grownup, and the bumps and successes along that road have been subtly built into the arc of the season.

There were other culminations and confirmations in the finale as well. We got reaffirmation that Ellie can be kind, and that she and Andy, for all their bickering and Ellie's mild jealousy at Andy and Bobby's man-love, they "win at couples." As for Jules and Grayson, their dilemma about having a kid was absolutely real, and both Courteney Cox and Josh Charles played the hell out of their scenes together, despite the issues I mentioned above.

I had a feeling I knew where both shows would end up -- I was sure that Jules and Grayson would find a compromise on the baby issue and that Travis would wise up and come home, and of course 'Modern Family' would find a way to bring the whole clan together some kind of sweet scenario.

Even if the journey to those conclusions had more emotional payoffs for the Cul De Sac Crew, I'm still on board with both shows next season. But you know my heart belongs to Big Kimo and Big Carl.

A few final observations:

-So another show goes to Hawaii and we still get no references to the Brady Bunch's famous trip to those islands? What's up with that?

-The scene of Cam talking to Manny on the phone in the bakery was hilarious, by far the episode's high point.

-Nice work from Dan Byrd, who's managed to make Trav's descent into post-breakup depression and irresponsibility both funny and real.

-Nice work from Josh Hopkins, whose impersonation of Travis was spot on. I love it any time characters on this show imitate each other -- they're all really good at it.

-"How can it be one time here and another time at home? This isn't 'Star Trek'!" Love that Bobby Cobb is the one making the 'Trek' reference.

-One of the funniest running gags was Ellie and Andy's differing vacation styles -- Ellie's preference for vigorous activity was a surprise, though I guess Andy's love for jazz sunset cruises wasn't too much of a shock.

-So Subway is looking beyond 'Chuck' for its product placement. Hey, I don't begrudge the Cul De Sac Crew the occasional trip to the sandwich shop if it keeps the show on the air for at least as many seasons as 'Chuck' has gotten.

-Update: Apologies to those of you who saw that some references to last week's episode of 'Modern Family' and this week's episode were mixed up. I've now fixed those references above. Sorry about the screwup, but I feel compelled to point out that last week's episode (which I also watched last night) felt like it could have been a season-ender, as apparently it was supposed to be, based on the order in which episodes were shot.

-Joel Keller's thoughts on the 'Cougar Town' finale will be posted shortly here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Karen Galvez

Great review!

Just wanted to point out that Josh Hopkins, not Josh Charles, is on Cougar Town. Both hot studs though.

May 27 2011 at 11:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Andrew

Mention of Josh Charles should probably be Josh Hopkins. I was confused for a second there too, what with them both being Joshes.

May 27 2011 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paul

> I love it any time characters on this show imitate each other

Amen! Tell it, sister! Other shows have done this sort of stuff, but 'Cougar Town' is awesome at it! The actors are great sports about this, and I'm very grateful!

May 26 2011 at 9:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
FlyoverFi

I'm pretty sure that the Scrubs' Bahama episode had a very direct shout-out to the Brady Bunch Hawaii episode (e.g. the cursed tiki) so that may be why they didn't want to plow the same ground in this episode.

May 26 2011 at 1:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Richard

Someone's been watching too much "The Good Wife".

Up there towards the end you got "Courtney Cox and Josh Charles". His last name is Hopkins.

May 26 2011 at 1:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
big1nfla

Regarding slapdashedness, why Hawaii at all? It wasn't used to any real effect. Crossing that many time zones makes the getaway weekend/Travis track down ludicrously unbelievable. I know these are fictional characters, but if Travis' escaping to an end of the Earth scenario due to pain refugee/dunno what to do with myself at 19, the gang could just as easily have just chased him to Key West.

May 26 2011 at 12:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rob Stevens

Maureen: Can you post your thoughts on the "Modern Family" finale after you've watched it? The episode you keep citing in this article is NOT the finale. You're talking about Episode 23 "See You Next Fall", and the actual finale was Episode 24: "The One That Got Away."

May 26 2011 at 11:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Rob Stevens's comment
moryan

Yes, I did watch the finale -- and I apologize for the confusion about the episodes, which I've cleared up in the post above. I watched the finale and Episode 23 in the same evening, and that's what led to the references to 23 above. Sorry about that. I've fixed the references so that they refer to the correct episodes.

May 26 2011 at 12:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
General Kenobi

But that doesn't fit nicely into her hit job on Modern Family.

May 26 2011 at 12:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
5 replies to General Kenobi's comment

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