Cougar Town isn’t the type of show that will produce high melodrama on a weekly basis. But it’s also not a show that lets its characters coast on wine and first-world problems, either. The issue of kids in the Jules-Grayson dynamic has hung silently over the third season of the show. Reading your comments over the past five weeks, it’s clear many of you have wondered how the show would reconcile the events in Hawaii with the current configuration of these characters. And while it’s an overstatement to say lingering feelings from that trip have been festering all season, it seems like many of the unresolved issues from that excursion came to light in tonight’s episode, “Something Big.”
The introduction of Tampa, Grayson’s infant daughter, provided a great way to take stock of the central romantic relationship in the show as it moved into the middle third of its season. So far, this season has been about the rush of Grayson’s proposal and Bobby’s attempts to move into a mature relationship of his own. But the “all wedding, all the time” approach has also left Grayson somewhat riding shotgun on the Jules Express. She’s a study in contradictions: She’s someone who is more than willing to give herself over to a friend in need… so long as that need doesn’t directly conflict with her own desires. It seems odd that someone who constructed Bobby’s elaborate date with Angie last week would say, “It’s exhausting thinking of other people’s feelings!” But both aspects of Jules feel organic, even if they sometimes contradict one another. In the case of children, it’s not merely a contradiction: It’s a potential deal breaker.
Now, did we think the couple would break up? It’s hard to say, honestly. While Cougar Town isn’t interested in smashing relationships apart on a regular basis, it does treat the journey towards resolution with a sober eye. Jules and Grayson try to act normally after learning about Tampa’s existence (planning which “Maury Povich dance” they’ll do upon hopefully learning he’s not the father), but it’s clear it’s a façade, one engendered by Jules’ often-blunt approach to stamping out dissent between them. But Grayson’s desire for children has always been the one thing she’s been unable to stamp out, which makes Tampa the one thing that could ostensibly break them apart. We don’t hear a lot from Grayson this episode about his feelings about his fatherhood: Andy stands in for him during a therapy session to give voice to Grayson’s feelings, which is fine. We’ve known all along what those feelings are. It’s Jules that has denied the conversation.
It takes Ellie to point out what’s obvious: Grayson’s situation is analogous to Jules’, in that they now both have children with other people. It took Ellie quite some time to tell Jules this because she spends most of the episode in the Atlantic Ocean, doing what she calls “wave sitting.” She craves alone time without the cul-de-sac crew, another “no no” in the Jules handbook of life rules, and accomplishes it by sitting on a surfboard instead of talking on the phone to Jules while the latter showers. It’s not the most artful of plots, existing primarily to give Ellie something to do for the week while giving Grayson and Jules space to work out their problems. Still, while it’s fun to see Brian Van Holt in full John From Cincinnati mode hanging ten, little about this plot felt thematically related to the main storyline.
The Laurie/Travis storyline, however? That was both thematically related and dramatically satisfying. Sure, there are laughs a plenty in this storyline: Travis’ continually terrible names for his house, Sig’s attempts to step dance, Laurie’s revelation that she thinks about a certain scene in Stomp The Yard when she’s not speaking. But honestly, this was in some ways an even more powerful callback to the events in Hawaii than those in the Jules/Grayson material. When I talked to Bill Lawrence in January, he told me that this relationship was the one thing the writing room couldn’t fully agree on. While they could ultimately settle on every other narrative aspect of the show, no consensus could be reached. But if this was a test run to see how these two might play out as a couple, consider me signed up for Team Lauvis. (Team Traurie? I suck at making these up. How about Team BusyByrd?)
I know Cougar Town’s a comedy, and breaking the interactions down to a molecular level is probably not the point. But Busy Phillips and Dan Byrd put on a veritable master class in subtly suggesting subtext to each line. Just as Jules and Grayson engage in banter in order to sometimes hide hurt feelings, Laurie and Travis use their verbal exchanges to dance around the topic that the writers of Cougar Town have long wrestled with: How long can these two banter before shit gets real? Well, it looks like “no longer,” given what happened tonight. The conversations between the two of them started off the same as always… until Travis refused to play along. This only made Laurie try harder, which then forced Travis to dig his heels in deeper. Finally, Travis had to admit that playing the game was essentially killing him inside, which evoked a response from Laurie which then evoked a response from me. I need to dust in my office, is what I’m saying.
Eventually, the subject at hand—Travis won’t help Sig audition for a black sorority for fear of public helmet humiliation—ends up being a slight ruse for Laurie’s benefit. Hearing Omega Beta Theta shout out, “I say, where is my helmet!” and having Travis reply “Omega Beta Theta, your helmet has arrived!” was marvelous fun, as was the ensuing dance. But I don’t think the long con negates the sentiment of what Travis said to her. It’s not “no meaning yes.” It’s “You have to stop asking me things that you know I have no power to resist.” Thus, both the Jules/Grayson and Laurie/Travis relationships end up being about the unspoken things between certain people that can rot seemingly stable relationships from the inside out.
One last time: I know Cougar Town is a comedy. But most of the time, it’s a lot more than simply that. I’m all for Laurie praying her hardest that her Twitter boyfriend is “blacker than space.” But I’ll take her forlornly giving Travis the perfect name for his house (“The Panty Graveyard”) any day of the week.
- Jules’ marriage counselor was played by Nicole Sullivan, who portrayed Jill Tracy on Scrubs.
- Grayson’s baby mama, Holly, represents what Laurie might resemble on an inferior show.
- Grayson’s Lost and Found Bang Box was a thing of beauty. And using it to remind us Laurie and Grayson actually slept together in the first season? Even better.
- Other names Travis suggested for his house: The Phallus Palace, The Nut Hut, and Wangtown.
- Not much Sarah Chalke this week, sadly. But she gets plenty of screen time in the next installment. At least she gets in a good story about a former student that leads to Ellie “Gangbanger” Torres driving by with her finger gun waving in the breeze.
- “Two summers of preteen dance camp with my Moms, what up!” There’s a truly terrifying show to be made called Jules And Travis: The Early Years.
- Grayson’s song over the final credits? Pretty perfect. Yes, it breaks the fourth wall more than even last week’s Scrubs-tastic sequence. But it’s still great, because they like to surf!