“Cougar Town” Review: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”

I’m drinking a glass of wine as I write this, which feels appropriate. (It’s white wine, however. Don’t tell Ellie.) I haven’t written about “Cougar Town” since its fourth season, the last I covered extensively. I’ve enjoyed the last three seasons in fits and spurts, while also recognizing that comedies are hard to keep fresh over the long haul, especially with the original guiding voices moving on to do other projects. But it’s a show I’ve always treasured since season one, and it could hit certain sweet spots that few other shows in the current TV landscape even attempted. It was sweet, it was sophomoric, it was swooningly romantic, it was swimming with contradictory impulses.

In the end, “Cougar Town” (or “Sunshine State,” one of the show’s originally pitched titles) went out in ways both metatheatrical and earnestly heartfelt. “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” employed the tropes of a series finale by playing a final prank on both Jules as well as the audience. It seemed patently silly to have so many members of the Cul-De-Sac Crew leave simultaneously, but that’s the kind of thing that happens in episodes like this. It seemed odd to have so many people praise Jules, but it’s also not entirely out of character for them to do so. At one point, I honestly expected Monica Geller to wake up in bed next to Chandler Bing, telling him all about the wine-infused dream she had.

Instead, something I semi-suspected was going on was finally revealed: Everything was in service of giving Jules the ultimate birthday present. The oddly-mechanical speeches fulfilled her wish to know what her friends would say at her funeral. The departures were all long cons in order to make her feel ultimately loved through their outlandish methods to fool her. So nothing truly changed, except that’s not the point of “Cougar Town.” Sure, Bobby left town, and that somewhat crippled the show in its final season by removing his oddball charm from the overall dynamic. (The running “What?” gag felt inspired by Brian Van Holt’s virtual presence, and instantly injected the show with comedic life often missing in latter seasons.) But Bobby leaving felt like real-world situations impacting a fictitious world rather than an organic result of the show’s storytelling. This isn’t a show in which people radically uproot their lives by moving to South Carolina. This is a show in which people radically reorient their attitudes towards others through slow and unsteady steps.

In that sense, the character who represents the type of grow that “Cougar Town” did best was Grayson, who went from consummate outsider to part of an overly-tight knit group. It’s important that he never truly turned into an extrovert, but rather saw the benefits of the crew while consistently fighting for a larger piece of the pie that is Jules’ time/energy. So Grayson could simultaneously spearhead tonight’s birthday con while earnestly pleading for more alone time with his wife. Those two sides don’t contradict one another. Nor are they separate. They are awkwardly intermingled. In other words, Grayson is a mess of contradictions. Like the rest of us.

Of all the so-called “hang out” shows on TV, “Cougar Town” always stood out to me because it had something important to say under the surface of seeming nothingness that suffused its surface. It snuck in mortality, abandonment, and the idea of unfulfilled ambition in between its snarky title cards and pop-culture references. For every long-winded Laurie monologue, there was also a wounded bird nursed back to health and psychic sanity by Jules and others. For every snarky Ellie comeback, there was a woman so afraid of being rejected that she rarely gave anyone the chance to do so. The speeches the characters gave Jules were delivered under false pretenses, but also came directly from the heart. And that is the greatest thing “Cougar Town” ever did: Deliver earnest sentiment under the guise of disposal entertainment.

I’ll miss the show a lot. All I can do is raise my glass in praise and celebration. Drinks are on me this time, guys.