I’m not reviewing “Cougar Town” this week over at The A.V. Club because it’s “Second Opinions” time there. Basically, a whole buncha writers are swapping a whole buncha shows. I’ll still be covering “Spartacus” because I’m pretty sure I’m the only one over there that watches it, and I’m covering “House Of Cards” as per usual. But since I enjoy writing about “Cougar Town”, and because I’ve been down on the show over the past few weeks, I wanted to write a few words about the show anyway this week, since “Flirting With Time” is the best episode since the third installment this season, “Between Two Worlds”.
What made this work? Well, the flashback structure seems an obvious place, one thrown out there for the “continuity nerds” who wanted to see how these people met in the first place. To be honest, I’ve never really thought I needed to see a flashback episode: everything we knew about the characters has been fairly well established, and Season One used Grayson’s new status to the Cul-de-Sac crew as a way to explain backstory when needed. And upon first viewing, I didn’t exactly warm to the flashbacks themselves, which seemed like fanfic more than an actual episode of this show. (It didn’t help that Courteney Cox might be the least believable redneck in the history of history. I’d buy Carson from “Downton Abbey” as a cracker before I believed in her.)
But really, the flashbacks did two things that the past three weeks really have not. Firstly, it put the core group of people in Jules’ kitchen and just let them hang out. Previous weeks have splintered the cast into different pockets in the name of PLOT. Well, plot isn’t really this show’s strong suit. Its strong suit lies in putting these characters in close proximity to one another and seeing what buttons they can push, what secrets they can reveal, and what unseen depths can actually be mined. “Flirting With Time” offered up some fun tidbits like the origin of Penny Can (a much better name than Penny Toss), but really served to remind the audience how important Jules’ personality is to the group as a whole. This season’s premiere did a nice job when Ellie passed the metaphorical torch to Grayson in cementing Jules’ centrality to the Crew. She’s abrasive, in-your-face, and often oblivious to most social cues. But she does have everyone’s back at the end of the day, and reestablishing that was the second strong thing this episode accomplished.
“Flirting With Time” also had the first earned emotional ending in a month, something I worried the show had forgotten how to achieve. Sure, it’s cued up the Ed Sheeran-esque melodies, and frivolity gave way to somber reflection. But those moments felt like parts of a “Cougar Town” Mad Lib rather than earned moments. The show doesn’t have to go to the emotional well in order to produce a successful episode, and there were plenty of these types of moments that fell flat in the first three seasons as well. But the ratio of hits to misses has been stronger in the past, and the failed attempts in the last three episodes only served to underline how fucking miraculous it is that this show pulls it off as often as it does. This stuff is incredibly hard to do, and it’s hardly a catastrophe that the show’s been slightly off kilter lately. All great shows go through those patches, and I always look forward to seeing more episodes of this show. I’m in until the end at this point, and I was long before I started writing about it on a weekly basis. Life has its ups and downs, and so do television shows. This week found “Cougar Town” on the upswing, and next week’s episode (which was the final one made available to critics/journalists before the season started) is even better than this one. That doesn’t mean the show is “fixed”, because it was never really broken in the first place.