Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Actor Factor: Taming the Cougar

When Cougar Town first premiered last fall, I had been (somewhat) eagerly anticipating it. I have always been a fan of Friends and its talented cast, and I welcomed the return of Courtney Cox to prime time network television comedy after her turn in the abysmal Dirt on FX in 2007-2008.

The pilot episode did indeed make me laugh out loud, guffaw even, several times. The second episode was equally funny with a hysterical photo montage that I watched several times over again through the magic of the bloop-back-button on TiVo. The third episode still provided plenty of laughs as well as the world's first dual manicure/bikini wax, but I was already beginning to tire of the shows basic premise: 40-something real estate agent Jules Cobb (Cox) is freshly divorced and coping with single life and, you guessed it, being a cougar (an older woman chasing after younger men, for those of you not in the know.)

I have never been a fan of current-day one-camera-sitcoms. They usually strike me as forced and insincere. Furthermore, Cox's performance in the show was almost too over-the-top, especially when contrasted against the show's supporting cast, which is ironic as she started out completely understated on Friends and eventually came up to a broader sitcom-style performance. Cougar Town just seemed to be going nowhere, and I stopped watching. Mind you, I didn't dislike the show, but there just wasn't enough there to keep me tuning in, especially with my TiVo memory at 13-percent and too many shows backing up in the queue.

Now, I have an “everything is better on DVD” philosophy, so when the chance came up to review the Cougar Town: The Complete First Season DVD release for Movie Dearest, I jumped at it. And son-of-a-gun, the show is better on DVD! But not just because of the lack of commercials, extra bonus features and chronological viewing convenience. The show itself, about a third of the way into the season, starts to downplay Cox's “cougaresque” sexcapdes, and becomes a character-driven, ensemble show about middle-aged people navigating life.

Yes, it is pretty much Friends twenty years later, but it works. The clever writing now has more substance and pathos beneath it, and the cast is one of the best ensembles to come along since Will & Grace. This becomes most apparent in the Thanksgiving episode “Here Comes My Girl”, wherein the entire cast begins to interact with each other instead of being somewhat separate entities on the periphery of Jules' life.

And what a cast of characters to play with! Jules best friends, next-door neighbor Ellie Torres (Christa Miller-Lawrence) and co-worker Laurie Keller (Busy Phillips) seemingly despise each other. Yet they maintain a bickering and humorous truce out of their friendship for Jules. Miller-Lawrence plays the self-absorbed Ellie with a dry wit reminiscent of Bea Arthur (she better take that as a compliment) and Phillips spouts off some of the shows best non sequitur lines with a sincerity that defies logic, such as: “Maybe Grayson's just being careful because it's a new relationship — they probably haven't even shaved each other yet.”

Rounding out the cast and characters are Bryan Van Holt as Jules' ex, Bobby, a typical, loveable loser type who remains remarkably human with Van Holt's deft and layered portrayal; Ian Gomez as Andy Torres (Ellie's husband) whose slightly inappropriate man-crush on Bobby breaks the mold of best buddy relationships; Josh Hopkins as Grayson Ellis, Jules' neighbor, nemesis, will-they-or-won't-they love interest and “paper buddy;” and the subtle and talented Dan Byrd as Travis Cobb, Jules and Bobby's college-bound son — the child Monica and Chandler probably would have had.

Put any of these characters/actors together in any combination, and the chemistry sparks and the laughs follow, even when it is a slightly inappropriate coupling. That doesn't happen much on television anymore. The show includes great guest appearances as well, including Barry Bostwick, Beverly D'Angelo, Sheryl Crow and Lisa Kudrow in a wonderful turn as the world's meanest dermatologist.

The only character who remains true to the “Cougar Roots” of Cougar Town is the mysterious and wonderfully under-developed, Barb, portrayed by General Hospital's Daytime Emmy-nominated Carolyn Hennessy. Her character pops out of nowhere, often just leaning into camera shot, to offer her two cents of “Cougar Philosophy” and disappears just as quickly. The bonus features offer Barb's Blog Spot from, in which she dispenses advice to the middle-aged lovelorn, and that alone is worth the price of admission. Also of note on the bonus features is the Jimmy Kimmel sketch “Saber-Tooth Tiger Land” featuring Cloris Leachman and a foul-mouthed Shirley Jones.

But make no mistake, despite the show's new ensemble direction, it is Courtney Cox that holds it all together. Much as she did with Friends, she sets her tone to that of her fellow cast-mates, and she sparkles all the more for sharing the spotlight.

Created by Bill Lawrence (former Friends writer and co-creator of Spin City and Scrubs) and Kevin Biegle (former Scrubs staff writer), Cougar Town walks a not-so-delicate tightrope between schmaltz and cynicism, which never strays too far from reality, while still daring to dally with the surreal. It is also a dazzling show to look at, with production values that play with color and light in a way few other shows do. In the end, as with Friends, Cougar Town is simply made up of nice (though flawed) people who are just fun to spend time with.

And, for me, that's what television is all about.

The Actor Factor: A View from Both Sides of the Camera is by James Jaeger, Los Angeles based actor and resident television critic of Movie Dearest.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! I too love the DVD extras "Ask Barb" and "Sabre-Tooth Tiger Land". Shirley Jones cussin' a blue streak is an unexpected scream!


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