There are always certain recurring guest stars who, when they’re in the cast list for an episode of a show, you know you’re in for a treat. Any time Carrie Preston pops by The Good Wife, John Oliver appears on an episode of Community, Alison Brie shows up on Mad Men, or Kyle MacLachlan governs the mad citizens of Portlandia, it’s a sign that the episode is likely going to be a step above average. Part of that comes from these actors being obvious talents you want to see more of, and part of it comes from the fact that they play characters who trigger something more out of the regular cast. While special guest stars suck up the attention, these recurring players add a new variable to the show’s alchemy, allowing the writers to find different stories that wouldn’t make as much sense on an average week.
Cougar Town’s prime example on this list is Ken Jenkins as Jules’ father Chick, who always brings a much more nuanced vintage to the show’s storytelling. As my colleague Ryan McGee discussed in his review of the season four finale, whenever Chick pops by, it triggers much purer emotional responses from the often erratic Jules, and the fact that he’s the only parental figure in the group (unless you count Ellie and Laurie’s horrific mothers) means everyone else takes an interest in his well-being. Last season in particular upped the ante by introducing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, which added serious stakes into the typically sheltered world of the Cul-De-Sac Crew. However, his appearance doesn’t augur a Very Special Episode vibe, as one of Jenkins’ most winning traits is how he invests Chick with a puckish spark that keeps things from getting too maudlin. (This is an man who almost persuaded Grayson to shoot a horse for his daughter’s hand in marriage, after all.)
Unsurprisingly, Jenkins’ first episode this season happens to be the best episode of Cougar Town season five to date, one that blends the character’s gift for instigation and pathos spectacularly well. While Alzheimer’s is still a long way from taking Chick down for good, the idea that it will one day has put him in a funk, barely able to tear his eyes away from home repair shows. (“They’re gonna paint that fence.”) The fact that the focus is less on the disease than Chick’s reaction to the disease keeps the stakes from seeming unachievable: Jules isn’t going to miraculously learn that wine cures Alzheimer’s and fix her dad, but she can find a way to get him interested in making the most of the time he has.
Failing to find that energy in tapas bars or jitterbug lessons, Jules excitedly monopolizes Andy’s problems to solve her own: After falling asleep in a town meeting, Andy needs to get some positive PR to be taken seriously again. Refreshingly, the show continues to use Andy-as-mayor as a source of plot developments—even if it’s less in the forefront of the episode than it was in last week in “The Trip To Pirate’s Cove”—and the crew having fun at his expense is easily one of the funniest parts of the episode. (Jules: “Snorres, why didn’t we think of that?” Grayson: “All this time, I’ve been calling him Borres!”) And the scene where Jules, Andy, and Bobby bat around ideas until they finally hit one that solves both their problems—sponsor a 5K and have ex-track coach Chick whip them into shape—is a prime example of how effortless the chemistry between these actors can be with the right material.
Andy’s part of the story fades into the background once Chick takes over, because it turns out when coaching he only has two speeds: zero and turbo. And unwilling to let him go back to zero, the crew lets him abuse them left and right, said abuses ranging from spilling wine when Jules fails to complete crunches (drawing a truly horrified look on Courtney Cox), refusing to move past “one” in Bobby’s push-up count and bullying Andy into submission. Small wonder that he forces everyone else away except Jules, and even she finds herself snapping at him by the end and admitting defeat. The relationship between the two is sweet but complicated, and even with Chick’s health problems, the show isn’t shying away from the bullheaded attitude he clearly passed on to his daughter.
But as always, when Jenkins comes to the show, the real moments are when they come together to finally be honest with each other, as happens when Jules tracks her father to the old playground she herself used to run to when they fought. Much like how Chick can’t stop crying when Jules cries (a wonderful callback to the season three finale), seeing Jenkins and Cox interact will never not tug at the heartstrings, because they connect so well and are so damn believable as father and daughter. Between Jules’ raw admission that she’s not ready to lose Chick, Chick admitting he needed some help getting out of his funk, and Jules coaching him to push the swing faster, it’s a wonderful evocation of the relationship between the two. After that, it’s almost an afterthought to see Jules finally run the race and Chick cheer her on from a motorized scooter—though the latter presents a wonderful visual gag when he crashes and urges her on more.
While Jules and Chick are at the heart of the episode, there’s also some damn funny stuff going on off to the sides. Ellie’s excused from the training thanks to a nasty flu bug and her history of going crazy when she’s sick, which includes burning down a shed during a 2009 stomach virus and filing for divorce when she had strep throat. She’s not a megabitch this time, though, as she’s become something far more monstrous between her sickness and the introduction of the “coughtail” (a certainly ill-advised mix of flu medicine and red wine). Here, Cougar Town gets to tap into its horror vein again, as Ellie now takes on vampiric qualities: eyes snapping open like she’s in a coffin, draped in black (bath)robes, and offering her “gift” to others in a hissing voice. (Granted, said gift is being able to lie around watching TV all day and eat wine/medicine “coughsicles,” but it still comes across as ominous.)
And the desire of most of the crew to avoid Chick’s strenuous training means that the rest of the crew gradually starts to succumb to her gift, creating a full coven of “vampires” in black cowls with mouths stained red. Cougar Town’s various forays into genre fare are rewarding because they never go too far into taking over an episode; they just add an additional layer of absurdity to the already off-kilter world of the show. This one is especially fun, as the characters get to hiss, loaf around and even “devour” Andy under cover of darkness. They even manage to work a heartwarming moment into things when everyone feels guilty about getting out of the 5K and helping Jules across the finish line, proving her point that they do these things together. (This moment is made even funnier by the fact that Jules is so exhausted from the run she thinks they’re literally dark spirits there to ferry her across the line.)
Against all of this, the Grayson story is comparatively minor, even if it, too, manages to be funny and unexpectedly emotional in its own way. Prompted by Bobby’s urging that he get out there and follow his old dreams of being an actor, Grayson tries out for a local commercial and gets the part, only to be horrified when it turns out “Turbo-T” is a prescription gel for men with low testosterone. While I can’t remember if Grayson’s acting ambitions are part of that character’s overall history (feel free to remind me in the comments), it’s a career goal perfectly tailored for that character’s narcissism and impressionistic gifts, as he shows up to the set affecting an English accent and expecting to be treated like royalty. And when the eventual reveal of the commercial’s subject matter punctures his self-esteem, it sends him down one of those enjoyable holes where he has to grasp to put it back together.
While this works well as a story about Grayson’s vanity, it oddly winds up working even better for the character of Bobby. Part of me has been concerned that they’ve been playing Bobby’s dumb side too heavily in season five, and “Hard On Me” counters that when Bobby tries to cheer Grayson up by encouraging him not to give up on impossible dreams. And the impossible dream of sweet, loveable, dim-witted Bobby Cobb? To get married again someday. It’s such a simple admission, one that both stirs Grayson to storm back onto the soundstage—or rather the soundstage next door—and one that stirs hope that the writers may still want to get him off that boat someday and into a better life.
In the last few weeks, there’s been part of me that’s wondered if Cougar Town may have lost some of its mojo, content to run on its rails after living far longer than anyone expected it to. “Hard On Me” is a welcome shot in the arm, reminding us how damn good the show can be at balancing genuine emotion and even more genuine laughter between scenes. Maybe it runs at a more leisurely pace than it used to, but it can certainly still cross the finish line and make it count.
- Title card: “Side effects may include muscle exhaustion, erection problems and flu-like symptoms.” (Big thanks to @CougarTownCount for catching that for me when it went by too fast to write down.)
- No serious movement on the Travis/Laurie relationship this week, other than the fact that they’ve reached the nickname stage. “Tater Tot” wins popular approval from the group at large, though Ellie’s too sickly to cough out a “Change approved,” and therefore Travis is spared permanent embarrassment.
- I consider most of the drinking on Cougar Town as an ideal to strive for in my daily life, but I would strongly advise against trying the coughtail, as it certainly tastes vile and is almost certainly hazardous to your health. Though I am thrilled to see the series taking a page from Black Books and Ben And Kate with the introduction of winesicles.
- Bobby finds his inspiration in Harry Potter. Not the one you’re thinking of, but a guy who lived next to the boatyard until he came up with the idea for the Potter Squatter mobile toilet and now has his own mansion.
- “Grandpa doesn’t want to slut it up with a bunch of old biddies! … Okay, he probably does.”
- “If I’m running, you’re running. Are you new to this group?”
- “I haven’t hurt this bad since I had to push my childhood home to a gas station!”
- “Cell phone commercial, why couldn’t I get that? I look amazing talking on the phone.”
- “Why can’t I win a Heisman Trophy?” “Because you have to be a football player. … In college.” “Excuses, excuses.”