The Cul-de-Sac Crew (TBS)

In the last few years, there’s been a positive trend of long-running sitcoms going into their last season with the knowledge that it is their last season, and taking that knowledge to end the show definitively. 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks And Recreation all ended their runs with seasons that tied up whatever loose ends were remaining, and gave the impression that a phase of these characters’ lives had ended at the same time the audience stopped watching them. Not coincidentally, that ability to develop an endgame meant those shows ended on some of their highest notes, delivering remarkable emotional beats and paying off years of investment in these worlds.

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Cougar Town, which also knew this would be its last season after years of being the quintessential bubble show, largely steered away from that trend. Season six of Cougar Town has been of a piece with the bulk of the show’s TBS run, where the sensation is everyone involved is so happy at their second chance at life that they’ve decided not to upset the wine cart too much. There have been some further changes to the show’s equilibrium since the Bobby swap in “Full Grown Boy”—Travis finding a career with the creation of the Winebulance, Andy and Ellie realizing they’d be happiest trading the work and home roles—but for the most part Cougar Town has felt like the same show, the actors and writers coasting on their breezy chemistry. (A chemistry that frequently struggled without one of its key elements this year, as it never completely filled the huge Bobby-sized hole left with Brian Van Holt’s departure.)

But asking Cougar Town to change too heavily is asking it to change what made the show so good in the first place. Cougar Town grew very quickly from its early conception of being a show about a woman trying to reinvent herself at 40 to being a show about the friendship of this eccentric group of people and the wacky things they’d do to keep themselves entertained. Its vibe quickly came to match that of the wine that the Cul-de-Sac Crew drank as easily as water, a casual energy capable of extreme silliness and heartfelt moments at the same time. While every character has come a long way since the events of the first season—marriages, careers, children—the core elements always stayed true. Jules’s affection bordering on obsession, Ellie’s scathing wit, Laurie’s ebullient zest for life, Bobby and Andy’s dopey eternal love, Grayson and Travis’s patient weariness with everything. Cougar Town received the rare gift of being a show where the people making and watching it loved the same things about it, and never lost sight of that wonderful core.

This decision to avoid major changes initially makes two-thirds of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” feel like the show is scrambling to reach some sort of new conclusion, as Jules is bombarded by elements of change all around her. Ellie declares that Stan needs to go to a better school, which would require her and Andy to move ten minutes away; Travis and Laurie have a potential investor located up in South Carolina; and Chick’s looking to take a long trip with his unfortunately named cousin Pootie. All of these moves happen within 12 hours of each other, and on the same day as Jules’s birthday, meaning she’s getting heartfelt goodbyes rather than her ideal presents. (She’s seen a baby tiger, she knows they exist.) It’s so distressing to watch there’s almost the worry that the show’s going to go the distance and pull a spectacularly cruel meta twist, going to its misguided beginnings as a grieving Jules goes to a bar to pick up a guy half her age.

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Nope. Surprise! Turns out that Grayson orchestrated the whole thing as a way to fulfill Jules’s twisted birthday wish to attend her own funeral, in order to hear everyone say exactly what they thought of her. On the surface—and to any first-time viewer—this is a horribly mean thing to do to a person, toying with their emotions for sole purpose of a potential payoff. But for this group, it makes perfect sense. Think back to Grayson’s actions in the season three premiere “Ain’t Love Strange,” where he used an elaborate prank to engineer Jules’ idealized proposal setting and created arguably the show’s greatest emotional beat. The Cul-de-Sac Crew knows both that these extremes are the best way to get through all of Jules’s tics and obsessive qualities, and more importantly know that their love for each other is so strong they can get away with going to such lengths.

It’s also saved by the fact that the emotional moments both before and after the reveal are perfect. Series creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel returned to write the finale along with longtime writer/executive producer Black McCormick, and their natural talent and understanding of the characters lets them tug the heartstrings expertly. Jules Cobb hasn’t been as well-served this season as in prior ones—the tendency of long-running shows to exaggerate existing traits took her to a point where she’d never finished a book in her life—but she’s the rock of both the crew and the series, and Courtney Cox delivers her best work all season in reacting to these emotional upheavals. (Cox also directed the episode, which is well-framed and well-paced in the way we’ve come to expect from her various stints behind the camera.) Everyone else is on a similar level, particularly Josh Hopkins and Christa Miller as these incredibly guarded characters drop these guards for a few brief moments.

And as you’d expect from a Lawrence/Biegel script, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” also manages to be spectacularly funny. I laughed harder and harder every time the recurring joke of “What?” every time someone says something inappropriate came up, particularly when the group responds to Chick talking about condoms or weed. (As valuable as Ken Jenkins was to this show on an emotional scale, it’s for the best that the final season steered largely away from the consequences of Alzheimer’s and made sure he was there physically and mentally at the very end.) And while it’s only a return via video chat—or “virtual hillbilly app” as Tom’s girlfriend interprets it—having Van Holt back is a joyous occasion that brings back Bobby’s sorely missed trademark energy, misinterpretations of how the world works (“J-Bird! Your house is moving!”) and the unconditional love Andy feels for his other half. While it’s faded in viewer awareness since it jumped networks, this could be one of the funniest shows on TV when it was at its prime, and the familiar flow of jokes is a welcome reminder of that truth.

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Familiarity is the right word for it. Appropriately for a show that’s always known what its fans loved about it, its finale is packed with nods to beloved running gags. Laurie gets a few last absurd stories, with her escape from circus jail thanks to a monkey that ripped off earrings. lobes and all. (Ellie finally breaks down and asks point-blank if any of these are true. “You’d have to read it back to me,” Laurie says, a perfect Busy Philipps delivery.) There’s one last round of Penny Can, this time making it fancy with a match in the middle of a trendy nightclub. There’s one last shattering of a giant wine glass (RIP Big Chuck), made all the more meaningful by the fact that Jules does it deliberately to symbolize how her heart is breaking. Imaginary hat-tipping, pantomimed murder-suicides to escape conversations, changes of phrase being approved, even one last nod to the Target sponsorship that kept Cougar Town on the air in later years. It’s all wonderful to see, and even better because none of it feels like shoehorned fan service. This is the way these people talk, the way they connect with each other, and the rhythms they fall into.

And they’re rhythms that aren’t going to stop just because the show is ending. Steering away from their Cougarton Abbey heritage, the final scene doesn’t give everyone hemlock but instead places them around the kitchen island that served as their anchor for six years for one last glass of wine and a “Change approved.” Jules, in a rare moment of serious reflection, looks around at her friends and family to perfectly sum up the show’s mission statement:

“Do you guys ever wonder if this is what we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives? I mean, we’re all adults, so the odds are not that much is gonna change. We’re probably gonna do this for the rest of our years, just drinking wine, hanging out, doing nothing.

“We are so lucky!”

It’s a moment of terrific sweetness, the camera heading out the window to take Tom’s place (Tom having finally earned his spot inside), seeing the hugs and warmth continue as it fades to black. They are indeed lucky to have each other, and audiences have been lucky to have this show in their lives for the last six years. Here’s to you and your improbable run, Cougar Town: all your Penny Cans, gallons of wine served in vases, changes approved, charming musical numbers, and the marvelous way you captured the moments of sweetness and weirdness in ordinary life.

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Finale grade: A

Season grade: B

Series grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • Title Card: “Welcome to Sunshine State: Finally got the new title!!” The creative team on this show deserves some kind of commendation for the degree to which they embraced the title they were stuck with.
  • Best use of a recurring gag this episode: Jules stringing together several of the previous “Change approved!” phrases that sound like gibberish outside of context. “Ellie leaving kicks ass! Sometimes you just gotta eat the sword and slap out of it.”
  • Greatest sin of this season: not one sighting of Dog Travis. I also missed the green screen, but I suppose Travis left that back at his college house.
  • “You finally had a threesome with Grayson and a family member! I always thought it would be Travis.” “Me too.”
  • “The gift of you is from me!” “The gift of me is me!” “Dumbest fight ever.”
  • “We didn’t judge when we hosted that five-mile ‘Swim and Drink’ race, we’re not judging here.” “Is everyone from that ocean race okay?” “Let’s just say they eventually found everyone.”
  • “Can I order you around like my naked little bitch?”
  • “You’re a nerd. Find a sciencey way for me to live in your blood!”
  • All right, reminiscence time everyone. Favorite Cougar Town memories, characters, running gags, episodes, clever ways to drink wine: fire away in the comments. To get motivated, here’s a montage of wine drinking, musical moments, the heartbreaking death of Big Joe, that time the cast of Scrubs reunited on the show, that time Abed Nadir got to be a guest star, and a legendary moment of remix humor.
  • And with that, it’s last call. Thanks to everyone for reading our coverage of
    Cougar Town going all the way back to the pilot episode, and following it through the ups and downs as Todd VanDerWerff, Ryan McGee, and myself talked about this special little show. We’ll see you all at the wine bar.

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