The last-minute twist is a move that can be difficult to pull off in a comedy. So many contemporary sitcoms are built along a three-act structure that adding an unexpected wrinkle risks detracting from all the good work that was done before. Sometimes it comes across as the show being too clever for its own good, other times it feels like an inorganic development that sours the 22 minutes of story before. For a twist to be done right it has to be
- so seismic that it wipes away any doubts in a wash of shock and awe,
- so funny that it’s worth the impact,
- or it has to be a development where the groundwork was laid so carefully you’re teed up for the twist without even realizing what’s coming.
The third of those scenarios is certainly what happened this week on Cougar Town. Up until the last minute and a half of “Refugee,” I was fully prepared to mark the episode as an average installment of the series, one that leaned heavily on the show’s tendency for goofy moments and fantasy worlds. Not great, but not painful either—an overall fine installment of what’s shaped up to be a overall fine season as we head into the homestretch.
However, once Chick’s head pops up over the reappeared boat and he reveals he set the mystery in motion, those feelings of ambivalence segued into pleasant surprise that soon gave way to an unpleasant worm of uncertainty. Given my appreciation for what Ken Jenkins brings to the show, I should have realized that he doesn’t just pop by for one short scene in the kitchen (Scrubs reunions aside), and that his previously established love of pranks made him a likely candidate for the mischief. But the one thing missing is appropriate motivations, as Chick always presents a method to his madness. That unease builds even more when he says he thought that Bobby and Jules were having problems he wanted to help with—unease that becomes devastating to all parties when he says they’re still married.
Cougar Town pulled a similar trick when it first revealed Chick’s illness in “Make It Better,” and the way this episode lands proves it hasn’t lost its touch for these beats. So much of this show is built on status quo that whenever one of those support beams gets knocked out, the impact is felt all the more keenly. As I said a few weeks ago about “Hard On Me,” Jenkins and Courtney Cox have a perfect batting average in landing emotional beats flawlessly, and the look on both their faces stings deeply as the private-eye game evaporates. It’s back to reality, a reality that just got a lot darker and colder.
What makes the moment even more devastating is that it comes up against an episode full of the sort of consequence-free hijinks that are a Cougar Town staple. Bobby realizing that his boat has vanished from the boatyard leads Jules to excitedly propose a return to Blacktop and Gumshoe, the detective personas they used to solve crimes when they were married. (Missing oranges? “It was a monkey who escaped from the zoo.” Missing paper? “Turns out we didn’t even have a subscription!”) One of the greatest tricks Cougar Town ever pulled was proving how Jules and Bobby could stay married for years and remain close friends after divorcing, and it’s adventures like this that prove it. They feed each other’s natural goofiness, neither one willing to pull the other one back from the edge of insanity. And even more refreshingly, their new relationship status quo has leveled out so much over the years there’s not one iota of romantic tension, or any sense there’s any issue left from their marriage to work out.
The cop stuff is also a lot of fun to watch. None of it goes as far as Cougar Town’s sitcom soulmate Community did in its own law-enforcement homage, but there’s some good moments in “Refugee” that inject a CSI: Gulfhaven flavor into the proceedings. There’s the character beats of Jules and Bobby taking every opportunity to whip off or look over their sunglasses, the shooting choices that place the camera level with the crime scene looking up, and then there are the big set-pieces like a chase scene through the Gulfhaven main streets—one full of fun callbacks as they knock over the Senor Casa’s spokesman and chase Jerry into what I believe were boxes of Guzzle Buddies. The interrogation scene is probably the highlight, as Jules can’t let her hard-bitten cop persona get in the way of being a good host and has to offer their hostage crab cakes. It’s a fun use of common cliches, made even more fun by how much both Jules and Bobby commit to these roles.
Back in reality, Grayson gets the chance to dust off an old persona of his own when Andy bemoans his inability to get a leg up on his new supervisor. Turns out that back in the day Grayson taught seminars on how to pick up women, and he shares that secret with Andy: a combination of lowering your voice one octave, a supportive hand on the shoulder and a carefully played compliment with just enough insult buried in it to throw off the target’s self-esteem. It works perfectly for Andy’s job prospects, except he gets greedy and tries to apply it at home, responding to her usual cold dismissal with a seamless “neg”: “I think it’s great you have such confidence in being a wife and mother that you don’t feel the need to take care on his family.”
Andy and Ellie’s relationship is so frequently one-sided that it’s a treat to see that balance of power shifting, and the reactions playing over each of their faces are priceless—the surprise that turns to malicious glee on Andy, the dull confusion transitioning into icy rage for Ellie. Once they both realize what’s going on and decide to turn this power on each other, it’s a masterclass in passive-aggression, offering carefully constructed barbs back and forth at each other:
Andy: “It’s refreshing to see generosity from someone who normally doesn’t show any.”
Ellie: “I appreciate all you do for me financially despite your falling short in so many areas.”
Ellie: “That’s a very smart observation from someone who left the house wearing those shorts.”
Andy: “It’s impressive how you speak your mind, most people would be concerned with seeming so obnoxious.”
And adding Grayson into the mix only makes things more amusing—first when they cross the streams and make him their target, and then when he tries to reassert his dominance but comes across as so lame the couple resolves their differences by laughing hysterically. In this show’s world, the only way to avoid the verbal abuse is to shift it to another target.
The C-plot is a fairly rote one as Travis volunteers to pitch in on Laurie’s redecoration of her apartment. Whatever else is going on with his mind Chick’s still wise enough to see a stock comedy plot kicking off (“I’m getting out of here before someone throws a lamp”) and it proves the right instinct. As much as the two of them promise they’ll keep this from becoming a thing, all it takes is one badly placed gold vase to upset Laurie’s aesthetic tastes and they’re locked in conflict as heated as Andy and Ellie’s. (Laurie: “Take your fancy words back to Hogwarts!” Travis: “Fine, but I’m moving this basket back first!”) If anything has surprised me this year on Cougar Town, it’s been the matter-of-fact way the writers have treated the Laurie and Travis relationship, and once again their plot is one that treats them as being a couple on the show and not a couple that it’s weird to have together.
But once again, it all comes back to Chick. Whatever’s going on with him isn’t a problem that Blacktop and Gumshoe can detect the answer for. It can’t be sorted out by increasing the chaos until order emerges from it, nor is it the problem that can be solved by switching all attention to a guy in a stupid leather vest. Once again, Cougar Town throws an emotional curveball at the viewers heading into the final episodes, and their track record indicates we’re in for some emotional blows before the season’s over.
- Title card: “Another Blacktop and Gumshoe mystery.” I would definitely watch that over similarly titled TNT shows.
- RIP Bobby Cobb’s beard. You were a magnificent scruffy beard and your passing will not go unremarked. I fill my glass in your honor.
- Speaking of, Bobby looks better in Grayson’s suits than Grayson does. The secret? Scissors!
- Laurie comments that Travis shouldn’t think too hard about shopping for her apartment because she’ll just go to Target for everything. If you’re playing the Cougar Town drinking game, this is where you finish your drink as the creative team pays unsubtle tribute to their corporate overlords.
- Bobby’s enemies include the harbormaster, Don at the golf course, Slick Marco and Javier the mango man. Jules: “Does he sell any other fruit?” Bobby: “Not to my knowledge.”
- Cougar Town has been killing it this season with the scenes over the closing credits, and this one was no different: Grayson channeling Tony Robbins by way of Gob Bluth to an audience that includes comb-over Tom and a handful of similarly pasty individuals.
- “I need a drink.” “Tough day?” “No. Why?”
- “Bobby’s a very nurturing bitch.”
- “What does that mean, and why do you look like Julia Child on a bender? ‘I just need a little bump to get through this bundt cake.’”
- “It’s like your crazy and my crazy is the perfect combination.”