I suspect that most viewers’ feelings about “Depending On You” are going to depend (nomenclature irony) on their feelings about Dr. Tom, a character who occupies an odd niche in the world of Cougar Town. Although he became a regular member of the cast in season four, he’s remained on the fringes of the Cul-De-Sac Crew, treated for the most part as someone the crew tolerates more than it actually likes. Even Travis has more claim to being a member of the crew ever since he reached the legal drinking age, a connection that’s only become stronger since he and Laurie started dating. True, Tom’s off-putting demeanor and creepy behavior are alienating even to people who’ve known him for years, but even with that qualifier, their treatment of him feels like they’ve got a striking disregard for his feelings.
Despite all that abuse, Tom’s remained not only interested in but fascinated by the way his neighbors interact with each other, often to an unhealthy extent. In “Depending On You,” the Cul-De-Sac fan fiction he alluded to back in “I Should Have Known It” has now graduated to the scale of The Sims, as he’s constructed an entire model of the neighborhood in his house. The model’s constructed with surprising attention to detail, right down to the Ellie doll being notably colder than the rest of the dolls, and the Jules doll having clothes made from her favorite dress that she can’t find. And there are a few parts that serve as a window into Tom’s desires and worldviews, such as the fact that he’s a head taller than the others (“Forced perspective” he explains) and Grayson’s doll spends time facedown in the bathtub.
It’s obviously creepy in that uniquely Tom way—especially when one considers the way he obtained most of his information—but “Depending On You” uses it in a way that gives the character some welcome new shading. In many ways, it evokes a parallel to one-time Cougar Town extra, Community’s Abed Nadir: Both characters are, by nature of their personalities, removed from the rest of their social groups, and from that position of removal find themselves in the role of observer. As observers, they’re able to see situations differently from those who are too close to said situations, and can provide insight that the featured players may have missed.
“Depending On You” also uses the device of the model Cul-De-Sac to link its various stories together, providing a connectivity that’s been missing in the first couple of episodes. The first of those stories comes up when Bobby goes out for a walk with Dog Travis and sees a wagon full of puppies, excitedly realizing that they were fathered by Dog Travis before he was fixed. (Travis: “You made us bury his little buddies in the backyard.” Andy: “I just know they’re up there watching all of us.”) Of course Bobby loves the idea of being a puppy granddaddy, so he cheerfully approaches the owner to discuss shared custody, only for the bridge to be burned before construction even starts. It’s a monstrous disappointment for Bobby—and also for the audience, because Brian Van Holt playing with puppies is something that needs to be written into every show on the air. (Perhaps with Andre Braugher holding a couple of them in the background for maximum effect.)
This plot allows for a welcome return of a Bobby and Ellie pairing, once he’s able to talk her into getting back into lawyer mode with the promise of destroying a jackass. (“How big a jackass is he?” “He wears a puca shell necklace.” “When do we start?”) Ellie’s armed for battle in her “Widowmaker” suit and red-soled Louboutins—shades of Lydia in Breaking Bad—but her opponent is a jackass well-versed in family law who shoots her down in the first few minutes. The blow to her confidence is almost overwhelming, and it’s here that Tom’s model provides the impetus to save the day. Turns out that mini-Ellie is only one of Tom’s avatars for her, the other one is a giant red dragon that could tear everyone else apart. That honest opinion brings Ellie to tears in a surprisingly touching moment and leads her to summon her own draconic fury, reducing the dog’s owner to a quivering mess and leading him to sign over half the litter. It leaves both characters in a good place for future episodes: Ellie’s buoyed enough by this success that she may head back into the courtroom, and Bobby now finds himself with the full-time responsibility of caring about Dog Travis’s puppies.
Tom’s model also proves itself to be the cause of—and solution to—all of life’s problems when it sparks the first genuine fight of Laurie and Travis’s young relationship. Laurie’s offended by the amount of makeup on the mini-Laurie, whereas Travis sees it as a perfect match, a move that leads Laurie to angrily suggest she may as well sign up as a circus clown. After all of the fuss about the two not making a good couple due to the age difference, it’s nice to see them fighting over something that’s entirely unconnected to that factor and is driven more by character reasons. Travis is so thrilled to have landed the girl of his dreams that of course he’s going to see her as perfect the way she is. And Laurie has a history of overreaction to even the slightest bumps in her personal life—recall how she dealt with her feelings for Travis last year—so it’s not beyond the pale that she’d overreact to the degree of wearing a motorcycle helmet full-time.
And even more in character, neither one of them is emotionally mature enough to figure out how to solve this problem other than burning Tom’s model to the ground, allowing them to barge in on the garage and see Tom acting out the way he thinks the make-up/makeup conversation should go. The jury’s still out on the Laurie/Travis relationship, but it’s rewarding to see them cross this hurdle in a functional way—well, as functional as a fight involving models and a motorcycle helmet can be. There’s a genuineness from both Dan Byrd and Busy Phillips when Laurie takes off her makeup to be who she is, and a feeling that these crazy kids might be able to make it work.
The Jules and Grayson plot is only loosely tied to Tom’s mini Cul-De-Sac, serving as the mid-episode site of a problem-solving “brainflood” (her replacement for brainstorm, evoking a “Change approved!” from mini-Ellie). That’s appropriate, as it’s a plot that feels slightly out of character for Jules. Her tendency to say yes to people has been backfiring on her constantly, buying every box of Girl Scout cookies she’s offered and humoring the attentions of Jerry and Bonnie, a couple she sold a house to and who think that makes them best friends. She’s so willing to appease them that when Grayson—who’s more interested in making his roller hockey championship—marks their wedding invitation as no and mails it, she goes the distance of breaking into the mailbox and changing it back to a yes. (She does this over Grayson’s objections, which she’s able to diffuse quickly by asking the right questions about how he’s tending to the Truth. “Since you asked, reverse crunches.”)
The issue with this development isn’t so much that it’s out of character for Jules to be accommodating—she’s said countless times that helping the people around her makes her happy. The problem is that a large part of that trait is rooted in her own self-centeredness, the feeling like she’s able to solve everyone’s problem and consequently be the center of their universe. Here, it feels like the writers have taken a part of what works about the character and spun it out as a plot hook, as it turns her into a pushover rather than a complicated person.
Thankfully, both Jules and the episode come to their senses once things have reached the point of giving maid of honor toasts, admitting that she’s lost sight of who it’s really important to make happy and moving Grayson to admit having a wife that generous makes him feel like the lucky one. While last week’s “proposal” to get Sam out of the way felt unearned, these confessions get more to the heart of how these two are able to relate to each other—and the fact that they taking the spotlight of another person’s wedding and make out right behind the happy couple only emphasizes the fact. There’s a few missteps in “Depending On You,” but much like Tom’s model, eventually the pieces get put together in the right fashion.
And again: Bobby Cobb with puppies. That’s a winning combination right there.
- Title card: “This is the episode where everyone drinks a bunch of wine.”
- This week in Jules Doesn’t Get TV Shows: She’s convinced that Jerry’s last name is Seinfeld. “How come it’s so familiar!”
- This week in Cougar Town callbacks: Grayson’s remarkable inability to skate, plus Maury Povich dances of joy when Dog Travis’s “pupternity” is proved in shades of “Something Big.” (I choose not to ask how Tom got the DNA for the tests.) And the debt of six bucks Bobby owed Jerry back in “Blue Sunday” is finally resolved when Bobby rents out his boatyard for the wedding.
- Grayson tries to solve the issue of a thin mint surplus with the creation of the “thin mint julep.” It apparently tastes terrible but the name is terrific. Feel free to suggest your recipes in the comments—I’d say the tastiest option would be grasshoppers that use crushed thin mints liberally. (Not that I can see crème de menthe replacing wine for these people anytime soon.)
- Laurie’s reduced to drinking beer through a straw at one point due to her motorcycle helmet. As someone who’s enjoyed many a football game with a football helmet on their head, I can tell her that the strategic choice is to stick to bottles. Longnecks are much more accommodating.
- Life according to Ellie: “You should never accidentally hurt someone’s feelings! It should be done with intent and purpose.” To Andy: “Those shorts accentuate your baldness!”
- “Our wedding was the happiest day of my life.” “Even happier than when someone thought you were gay because you were in such good shape?” “Yeah, that was a good day.”
- “What is that? It looks like a giant mutant puppy! And his friend Destructo!”