When I was a boy sprawled out on the shag carpet in front of our Zenith, “Wonder Woman” pole-vaulted from ABC to CBS and “The Bionic Woman” power-jumped from ABC to NBC. Both of them eventually fell flat on their pretty derrieres, but the point was they eluded cancellation for a while by switching networks, which, back in the pre-cable days, seemed a true superhuman feat. They weren’t aiming for art, anyhow; they were aiming for perpetual rerun royalties.
Network-hopping is still rare and ill-advised. “Cougar Town,” a minor if praiseworthy success for three seasons on ABC, makes its move to TBS on Tuesday night — but rather than gladden its fans with the small miracle of its reprieve, it shuffles toward you with the stink of the dead. Now it’s just another zombie show.
That’s a sad fate for a series that outpaced its original premise with such skill that it became ironically self-conscious about its unfortunate title. When “Cougar Town” debuted in 2009, it seemed immediately cornered by a one-note routine: Courteney Cox plays Jules Cobb, a divorced, single-mom real estate agent in a Florida beach burb. The whole point of the show (the only point of the show) was her sexual unleashing. The concept of “cougars” — women with voracious appetites for dating younger men — was in the air, or so we were led to believe by reality TV shows and the Demi/Ashton years.
But there was a different and smarter TV show waiting just beneath “Cougar Town’s” slimy surface, and things went swimmingly for a season or so. Although Cox was and is the star, a superb ensemble cast and talented writers lent the series an unexpected warmth that soothed the snark.
Christa Miller and Ian Gomez were especially funny and rambunctious as Jules’s next-door neighbors Ellie and Andy. Josh Hopkins turned Grayson, who was originally written as the irritating bachelor across the way, into an adorable, guitar-noodling love interest for Jules. Busy Philipps similarly improved her auxiliary role as Jules’s tarty assistant, Laurie, a product of the Florida trailer parks. And Brian Van Holt, who plays Jules’s ex-husband, Bobby, and Dan Byrd, as their college-age son, Travis, rounded out a group that, in the immortal words of “The Brady Bunch” theme song, somehow formed a family.
That’s what good sitcoms should do — even the modern variety, which forsake the laugh tracks and studio audiences for attention-deficit pacing and pop-culture riffing. They should make you feel like one of the gang. Lubricated by its unabashed endorsement of the generous midday pour of pinot noir, “Cougar Town” achieved the fleeting perfection of co-creator Bill Lawrence’s previous hit, “Scrubs.”
Sensing impending cancellation, “Cougar Town” wrapped things up quite nicely last spring during a truncated season: Jules and Grayson got married and, after 61 episodes, the “cul-de-sac crew” all lived happily ever after.
Only they didn’t. The allure of syndication requires a hundred or so episodes for a real payday, so now Jules and her brood are forced to live out this unimaginative afterlife — and on cable, no less, where they should be freer to say naughtier things, but don’t.
Instead, they’re doing everything exactly as they did on ABC, only not as well: Slurping from snifter-size wine glasses, playing “penny can,” cutting one another with constant cruel remarks and then hugging awkwardly in the final scene. The jokes are still about sex and bodies and middle age, yet they seem to be written by someone who has watched “Cougar Town” once or twice and decided to wing it from there. Bereft of better scripts, the cast goes through the motions, half-hearted and cheerfully dazed. The last time I reviewed “Cougar Town” (and sang its praises) I couldn’t decide which of its many zingers to quote. This time, I didn’t write down a single joke.
Often when a series is on the cusp of cancellation, its most loyal fans lobby (beg) the programming heads of simpatico cable networks to swoop in and rescue it.
Here, then, is a lesson in the hazards of getting what you wished for. If there’s a petition to put poor “Cougar Town” out of its misery, I’ll sign it.
(30 minutes) returns Tuesday
at 10 p.m. on TBS.