By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 7:48 PM
It's impossible to start a conversation about "Cougar Town," ABC's smart and undervalued Wednesday night sitcom, without a nod to "Big Joe," the 44-ounce crystal wine glass that had a recurring yet crucial bit part in the show - until the gargantuan piece of stemware's untimely demise a few weeks ago.
The lead character (Courteney Cox as Jules Cobb, a divorced and lovably egomaniacal real-estate agent who sells McMansions in a central Florida beach burb) would routinely fill Big Joe up with a nice, midrange pinot noir. The whole bottle. Sometimes at what appears to be mid-morning.
Then tragedy struck. Big Joe tipped over and rolled off Jules's granite-top kitchen island, shattering into a zillion pieces when it hit the floor. Much comedic drama was made of this, including the cliche, lurching, slow-motion Nooooooo! as Big Joe plummeted to its (his?) doom.
Now slurping merrily away from Big Carl (Joe's immediate replacement), Jules continues trading gibes and holding forth with an array of surreal social observations.
Without that constant lubrication, "Cougar Town" would never have become a show that is altogether different than the show it started out as in September 2009. Instead of one long joke about a sex-starved divorcee, it became nuanced parlor comedy about the family-like bonds we sometimes create from spare parts - misfits, exes, neighbors, co-workers and new mates.
Beneath its thick layers of snark, "Cougar Town" might be depicting a family arrangement even more modern than the one seen in "Modern Family," the hit comedy that airs immediately before it.
Like "Modern Family," "Cougar Town" has one of the best ensemble casts currently on TV. There's Ellie, Jules's neighbor (played by Christa Miller; or mostly played by Christa Miller's bizarre-looking cheekbones); Ellie's goofball husband, Andy ("Once you go Andy, you can never go blandy," Ellie observes); Jules's adorably rednecky ex-husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt); Jules's new love, Grayson (Josh Hopkins), who lives across the cul-de-sac; Jules's Gen Y party-girl office assistant, Laurie (Busy Philipps); and finally, Jules's son, Travis (Dan Byrd), a college freshman who keeps coming home to experience his mother's smotheringly needy expressions of love.
Everyone in "Cougar Town" - except the college kid, who isn't 21 yet - drinks wine, beer, margaritas, sake, you name it. Their eyes light up at the sight of alcohol. If it's not happy hour at Jules's house, then they're all down at the pub Grayson owns.
I want to come out firmly (and soberly, for the moment) in favor of this narrative device. It's refreshing to see grown-ups drink this much and not wind up in jail or, worse, in punitive states of Don Draper-like brooding.
"Cougar Town" gets at a certain tipsy joy - a joy almost forbidden now in mainstream popular culture. The characters here drink, sometimes to excess. They love life, even as they insult one another: Ellie compares Laurie's hair to the color and shape of chicken fat. Everyone tells Grayson his eyes are too tiny.
Dispensing relationship advice to Travis, Grayson says: "I always imagine [the woman] without a face."
"I think I just read that tip in Ted Bundy's biography," Travis says.
In fictional Cougar Town, Fla., nobody ever misses a beat. It's an idealized world in which one always has a drink and a retort handy.
Whether or not the show is ultimately successful remains to be seen. "Cougar Town" is watched by 8 million or so viewers a week. The ratings have been flat, but as people frequently say about today's multimedia-scape, flat ratings are the new fantastic. (ABC is giving "Cougar Town" a hiatus beginning in February to try out some new comedy shows, then bringing it back in the spring.)
"Cougar Town" suffers from a mild identity crisis that dates back to its second episode. The pilot really was about cougars, a very mid-2000s term of art to describe women over 35 or so who date younger men; some still regard the show through that wan premise. It also moved obnoxiously fast for some viewers, having inherited its frantic, sans-laugh-track pacing from "Scrubs," which was created by one of "Cougar Town's" creators.
But if you stuck with it last season, you could actually see "Cougar Town" wriggling out of its confining conceptual skin and emerging as something strangely more tender and even beautiful (if it's not too insulting to call a comedy with so many boob jokes beautiful) than advertised.
Jules discovered love again with Grayson, a character who was originally her antagonist, embodying the illogical inequity that stipulates that men get sexier as they age, while women don't.
Over many, many glasses of wine and beer, a thousand pretty-good jokes added up to a refutation of not only gender stereotypes but also suburban stereotypes. The show's funniest moments revolve around the eternal combination of awkwardness and sweetness, such as the little songs Grayson composes on his out-of-tune guitar, or the gang's frequent games of "penny can," which, yes, involve trying to toss pennies in a can.
"Cougar Town" also found its strength is rapid-fire, free-associative commentary, often about the gender wars and class, but also about movies, race and even politics. When asked to explain politics to ditzy Laurie, Grayson once said: "Donkeys like hybrids, health care and homosexuals. And elephants like God."
"I saw an elephant pray at the circus once," Laurie replies.
This all happened in such a covert way that it defies usual network formats and tropes: If it's not a show about a naughty divorcee's haphazard love life and worries about her wrinkles, then what the heck is it?
Last spring, creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel even fretted publicly over whether or not to change the show's title, which might get more people to watch. ("The Family Jules"? "Neighborhood Watch"?) They decided - wisely - to stick with "Cougar Town," figuring that now we are talking about a place that is a state of mind rather than a hotbed of sexual hunger. As a work-around, the writers have taken to mocking the title each week with a tiny headline above the title card: "It's okay to watch a show called . . . 'Cougar Town' "; or "Now 100 percent cougar-free!"; and the confessional "Titles are hard."
Some may find "Cougar Town's" treatment of its characters' alcohol consumption to be dangerously carefree, but I think the show has a self-awareness about alcohol so keen it doesn't have to stop and explain itself. When it is not destroying people's lives, booze is in fact wonderful and funny and delicious. Booze is also a way "Cougar Town" justifies its mild mean streak: In real life, sober people would never say the things to one another that Ellie says to Jules, or Laurie says to Ellie, or Grayson says to Andy, and so on.
This is the genius of a good TV comedy: falling into the rhythm of the well-written jab between characters you love in spite of (because of?) their potential for sharp words. In that world, it only takes 20 minutes to resolve a full-on emotional crisis.
Here's to that.
Cougar Town (30 minutes) airs Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.