I’ve been thinking lately about “hang out” comedies, and the ways in which their laid-back nature may or may not affect the degree to which fans of the show express their affections for it. Certain shows cry out for passionate attention, whether they appeal to a certain demographic (such as The Vampire Diaries) or a certain intellectual disposition (the craft of Breaking Bad or the postmodernism of Community). These are shows that directly engage people in a way that demands an equal, opposite, and most importantly vocal reaction. There’s a Newtonian relationship at play that I’m not sure is present in “hang out” shows such as Cougar Town.
That’s in no way meant to take away from what Cougar Town has accomplished during its run. But I do wonder if it has something to do with the slightly muted response that has greeted recent news that the show might move to TBS for its fourth season and beyond. It’s not that there have been no cries of fear, panic, or depression. But if Cougar Town has a vibe that inspires loyalty, it’s also a vibe that is laid back. Here’s a show that focuses on the “minutiae” of life, but the elements that it tackles only seem small when compared to other television programs. In fact, I’d argue that “hang out” shows should inspire more passion than they do, since the problems onscreen more accurately convey those on the other side of the screen.
All of this is a way to say that while one might not assume that the hurricane in “Down South” would actually put anyone in the show in real danger, it would be a mistake to assert that tonight’s installment had no important stakes. A show like Grey’s Anatomy would have taken the concept of a hurricane episode to operatic heights, in turn appealing to those receptive to higher emotional situations. (McDreamy has to help a patient on the roof! That patient has a heart monitor…that is STRUCK BY LIGHTNING! So on and so forth.) That’s not to say a person can’t be a fan of both Greys’ Anatomy and Cougar Town, but the two operate on different frequencies. But the great myth of “hang out” comedies is that there are no stakes for those involved in them. If you truly believe that, well…go tell Travis that it’s no big deal that the potential love of his life just slipped through his fingers again. See how small a thing it really is.
Confession time: I’m the guy who watches a movie like (500) Days of Summer and mopes on the couch for a week. I’m a happily married man now, but it’s all to easy to access those emotional memories from my 20s when I was the shoulder to cry on, not the lap to sit on. So it’s possible that I overidentified with tonight’s Travis/Laurie storyline a smidge too much. But rather than try to hide that bias, I figured I’d put it out in the open in order to contextualize my reaction to the sledgehammer of a story that unfolded tonight. Cougar Town has teased this relationship for a while, almost as if testing the waters before itself diving in. Tonight, they dipped far more than a toe into these testy waters. (In my interview with Bill Lawrence this past January, he told me the nature of their relationship is the one thing that the writer’s room couldn’t agree on.)
At first glance, it might appear that Travis’ actions tonight come slightly out of nowhere, simply spurred on by Holly’s offhanded suggestion that he’s “in the game” due to Laurie’s breakup with Wade. Then again, those feelings have been omnipresent, even if under the surface, all along. They were present in the first season, and served as the emotional fulcrum for the season two finale in Hawaii. Back in this season’s “Something Big,” he sought to suppress his feelings for Laurie in order to establish some level of equilibrium with her. And sure, he made out with Holly last week, but it’s easy enough to see him imagining Laurie during that “tongue party.”
On the flip side, Laurie always senses Travis’ attraction, but has increasingly grown OK with the idea of them being a couple. She’s not quite there yet, and she and Travis both understand that on an intuitive level. But that doesn’t make every scene of them alone any less romantic, and doesn’t make the iPad-infused reenactment of Cyrano any less painful. What makes their inability to get together tonight painful in the good way is that Cougar Town hasn’t put a period on that relationship. It’s put an ellipsis on it. And that’s good, since I’m not sure I can take much more Travis heartbreak in the near future. Still, it seems clear these two are meant for each other, even if their present selves aren’t quite equipped to make it last for the long haul.
The other adults of the cul-de-sac crew get ample screen time this week, but most of their interactions center around their feelings about the two absent members. The hurricane not only cast a grey shadow (literally) over their scenes, but also forced the action outside of Jules’ home. That gave the scenes involving the other five adults a much different feel than those centered around her sunlit kitchen island, offering a more contemplative mood than the show usually emits. Bobby, in particular, seemed like a totally different character tonight. I mean that as a compliment. Cougar Town implied that Bobby grew as a person through his relationship with Angie this season, gleaning insight into what would truly make him happy as a person. Tonight, we saw Bobby apply those lessons to his son in ways that slightly undermined Jules but totally empowered both himself and Travis. By the end of the episode, more than ever, we can see why Jules would have fallen for him in the first place. (It’s not only we that see it: Grayson gets more jealous than normal in his bar as the exes bond over familial memories.)
Subplots such as Grayson’s search for the perfect closing time line or the three random wet co-eds that stumble into the bar mid-hurricane feel like unnecessary sidebars to what was by and large a clear, emotionally concise half-hour. The storm not only forced Travis to confront his feelings for Laurie, but for everyone else to determine their feelings about those two as a couple. The running gag about Jules’ inability to succeed “Celebrity” may have been slightly labored, but also served to demonstrate not only the ways in which these characters tend to treat life as a game, but also, more importantly the times in which they realize that the games have to stop. Pretending Tom isn’t on the other side of Jules’ boarded windows is one thing. Pretending there isn’t actual chemistry between Travis and Laurie is another.
Jules and Ellie give up their ruse upon realizing the happiness of Travis and Laurie is paramount. It’s not only paramount for those two, but for the group as a whole. And in the search for that happiness, “hang out” shows like Cougar Town detail those important moments deemed too inconsequential by other shows. Well, those other shows can keep those “bigger” moments. Those are great, and fun to watch, and fun to discuss. But television as a whole is better when it also has programs that explore the small moments as well. You know, those “small” moments like building friendships, sharing laughs, finding love, and forging a meaningful life. Small stuff, indeed. Hopefully Cougar Town will be around next Fall. I’d hate to permanently stop hanging out with this show come the end of this season. So by all means raise your glass. But don’t be afraid to raise your voice, either.
- As funny as The Perfect Storm re-enactment was, it seems weird that Jules actually knows this movie. She is fairly in the dark about pop culture as a whole, which the show has repeatedly proven. Still, it was worth it for Ellie’s line about dumping water on Jules instead of Bobby: “I’m only an OK storm. I’m not a perfect storm!!!” I nearly spit up as much water as Ellie tossed at her friend.
- Laurie’s story about her ex who blew himself up in a meth lab had me temporarily worried that she had been dating Star-Burns from Community. After all, the title card tonight noted that not even Abed knew the show was back on the air.
- “How many times am I going to do that?” Don’t worry, Jules: I reach for empty wine bottles all the time.
- Travis freestyle dancing while wearing Wade’s face might have been one of the most memorable images the show’s ever put onscreen. It was hysterical, horrifying, and heartbreaking all at once. Thank you, Steve Jobs, and thank you, “Down South” writer Mary Fitzgerald, for tag-teaming on that insane scene. And damn you, Dan Byrd, for being so great in it.