I’ve spent a fair amount of time in these reviews talking about how Cougar Town has settled into a comfortable groove in its fifth season, opting to put these people on wacky adventures as opposed to developing them further as characters. It’s an observation that’s easy to make on a regular basis, largely because this was once upon a time a show that was deeply interested in pushing its characters forward in their lives. It’s always been a hangout show at heart, but for all the bottles of wine and flicking of coins it knew when to look around and ask of its universe “Is this all there is?” And, more often than not, if its characters wanted something more from life they started taking steps in that direction.
The most prominent sign of Cougar Town’s forward-thinking approach has been its development of relationships between the main characters. In the early years of the show it was the pairing of Grayson and Jules, which both helped to steer the show out of its original limited premise and also file down the more jagged edges of both characters. Apart they can be too intense or sarcastic, but together they manage to largely absorb their partner’s more intolerable traits. More recently, the development of Laurie and Travis as a legitimate relationship addressed one of the show’s longest unanswered questions, as everyone decided leap forward and take the idea seriously. It further justified why Travis is still hanging around all these people, and gave Laurie her most stable partner in years.
Jules said in the season premiere how they would “just deal with” the ramifications and confusions of the new couple, and “Mystery Of Love” is the first episode to deal with how the show’s newest couple meshes with the first. The conflict, such as it is, is triggered by Travis inviting his parental unit to brunch. Grayson is unamused by the prospect—as is evidenced by the return of the pantomime suicide recurring gag—claiming that the “amateur couple” can’t work up anything more elaborate than frozen waffles and Jell-o shots. (“You just described my first year of marriage with Bobby,” Jules says in the oddly nostalgic way she gets when describing her white trash past.) Only when they arrive, it turns out that Laurie and Travis are behaving more like a Stepford couple than the charmingly awkward people they usually are, with Prosecco-fueled mimosas and adorable stories about recovering lost wallets.
The overall effect is so perfect that Grayson is won over, but Jules doesn’t react with pride at how adult her son is behaving. Indeed, she’s almost indignant that he’s part of a more demonstrative and invested couple than she is. While being overly competitive was more overtly a part of Courtney Cox’s acting DNA when she was on Friends, Jules has shared that particular Monica trait on a few occasions, and the desire to be the “polished, impressive couple” leads her on a string of ill-advised decisions. First she tries to force Grayson into coming up with some new anecdotes, and then she drags him into improvised dancing that sets her back on fire. It’s a lot of painful awkwardness, and interestingly works to illustrate why they work so well comedically as a couple: Grayson grows uncomfortable with Jules’s schemes, which just drives her to grander extremes, and it becomes a vicious cycle.
That cycle continues into phase two of Jules’s plan, where she decides that showing the other couple up with an elaborate dinner is the only way to stay on top. And by “on top,” she means “over the top,” setting up a $700 dinner with “artisan salumi,” candles all over the place and a seafood tower that’s so elaborate it collapses the minute she tries to pick it up. Here, the emotional side of their relationship comes up, as the end of that cycle is for Grayson to pull Jules back to reality by reminding her of the things that work in their relationship. (That, and pointing out that her extremes have now scattered clams throughout the kitchen in places they’ll never uncover.) Here’s a key example of why I hope the show eventually starts pushing its characters forward again, as this couple has grown from disparate individuals to be the show’s prickly emotional heart.
And witnessing the lengths to which Jules went, Travis and Laurie sheepishly admit that they were equally insecure about their perception. Turns out every part of their brunch repartee was rehearsed, right down to Travis almost getting clocked with a pitcher of orange juice. (A rehearsal that led to Travis taking enough knocks that his childhood stutter temporarily came back.) It passes another early test for the Travis/Laurie relationship, as it treats them as not an age-inappropriate pairing but a legitimate adult couple, with all the attendant foibles and quirks.
The rest of the cast is largely thrown to the side for the rest of the episode. Andy decides that he wants to be seen as a “fun dad” and decides to organize a trip to the beach for Stan, heading up to the fancy beach of North Gulfhaven. (Bobby tags along, excited by the prospect of sand so soft it doesn’t “rash your butt cheeks.”) The plot doesn’t truly click, largely because it’s the first time in ages that Stan’s featured as an actual presence on the show—the ring-bearer plot in “It’ll All Work Out” is the last instance I can think of. Granted, Andy’s notoriously sensitive to the idea of not having his son’s attention, but it still feels strange for Stan to play so active of a role when the show largely forgets he exists. (Though admittedly, he’s still more a part of the show’s world than Tampa Jill is.) There’s a few good moments as the boys have to fend for themselves after losing the keys and Bobby goes a little crazy from dehydration, but on the whole it’s a largely dispensable affair.
Back at home, Ellie finds her rare privacy invaded by the most unwelcome of visitors: Tom has made an ill-advised visit to her home after finding a manuscript in a box he bought at the “Learning To Fly” yard sale. Evidently a few years ago Ellie channeled her boredom and rage into writing a young adult time-traveling novel called Travelers under the pen name Jocelyn Bradshaw, but was unable to ever finish it due to writers’ block. (“I stopped drinking, I was being nice to people… it was a really, really dark time.) Tom, however, is utterly captivated by the progression of the story, and begs her to complete the saga of Violet, Ethan and Xander for both their benefit and his. Turns out complimenting her writing abilities gets even better results than complimenting her fear-causing abilities, and she eventually agrees to take another crack at it—after extorting a panini and a full tank of gas, of course.
This plot works much better than the beach, as Ellie and Tom are always a good pairing—he’s an easy target for her typical vitriol, and his acceptance of it amplifies how effective she is. In this instance however, he takes the rare position of being the dominant one in the relationship, even daring to order her around and tell her that her ideas are flawed. It goes about as well as expected in the long run, as he winds up having to eat the failed conclusion (“Small print,” he sighs in resignation), but it’s nice to see him finally find a rare position of confidence against the woman he often pictures as a dragon. Though given how he reverts to basic creepiness with his book club, it’s probably not a sign that his character’s heading for deeper growth anytime soon.
- Title card: “If you want to option Travelers, call our agents.” I suspect Mark Pedowitz has already made a few calls to see if he can fit it into the CW’s midseason schedule next year.
- This episode also features the return of Tom’s scale Cul-De-Sac model, as we see him briefly walking mini-Dog Travis along the road.
- Bobby only knows one phone number by heart, and it’s his sixth-grade girlfriend’s. He suspects she still holds a grudge on how he dumped her to spend time playing Pac-Man.
- Apparently Andy’s wedding vows were the lyrics to “Uptown Girl.”
- “You’re like a baby giraffe. All awkward, shaky legs, covered in afterbirth.”
- “Man, without toys, chairs or food the beach is a real sonovabitch.”
- “Laurie made rosemary plum jam from scratch! The only thing I’ve ever made from scratch is Travis.”
- “A mermaid just waved at me! She had great ta-tas.” “Bobby, that’s just a dead seagull with seaweed on its head.”
- “You almost died, didn’t you.” “An old man made me put sunscreen on his back and all I got was a hard candy.”
- As the powers that be pointed out this week, weekly coverage of Cougar Town is currently on probation due to low readership. If you enjoy these reviews and don’t want the wine fountain turned off, please do your best to spread the good word.