‘Cougar Town,’ canceled by ABC, hopes to be the toast of TBS
BY LORI RACKL TV Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org January 7, 2013 7:22PM
The “Cougar Town” cast — Ian Gomez (from left), Christa Miller, Josh Hopkins, Courteney Cox, Busy Philipps, Dan Byrd and Brian Van Holt — toast their new home on TBS.
‘COUGAR TOWN’ ★★★
Season four from 9 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays on TBS
Updated: January 31, 2013 4:37PM
PASADENA, Calif. — “I can’t believe we’re finally back!” Jules (Courteney Cox) says as the cul-de-sac crew files into her house in the season premiere of “Cougar Town.”
“Seriously? It feels like we’ve been gone for over a year,” Laurie (Busy Philipps) chimes in.
Technically, it’s been seven months since the underappreciated comedy ended its third season with divorced-mom Jules marrying her neighbor Grayson (Josh Hopkins) and riding off on horseback into the sunset.
Season four picks up a week later with this group of penny can-playing friends chugging their morning Merlot in Jules’ kitchen. Bride and groom are living in Jules’ same, sun-soaked Florida house, but the show itself has a different home. It’s moved from ABC to TBS.
“It feels like we’re a brand-new show that hasn’t changed,” Cox said at a TV critics’ gathering in Pasadena.
Last year, the Alphabet net decided to put down “Cougar Town” after bouncing the sitcom around its schedule and focusing its promotion efforts elsewhere. TBS swooped in to save this “Friends” for fortysomethings with a loyal-yet-small-by-broadcast-standards fan base. The cable network ordered a 15-episode season that starts Tuesday.
Basic cable, which isn’t as reliant on ratings as broadcast networks, has evolved into a rescue shelter for shows looking for a second chance. NBC’s acclaimed cop drama “Southland” found new life on TNT, the sister network of TBS, where Conan O’Brien took his late-night talker after Big Red’s bitter breakup with NBC.
Despite cable’s relaxed standards for nudity and swearing, as well as the addition of new showrunner Ric Swartzlander (“Gary Unmarried”), “Cougar Town” still feels like the same old show — a very good show at that. Co-created by Bill Lawrence (“Scrubs,” “Spin City”) and Kevin Biegel (“Scrubs”), it’s about a group of friends who love each other almost as much as they love wine. (In one of the new episodes, Jules plants wine-bottle holders around the neighborhood’s lawns. “They’re like fire hydrants, but useful,” she says.)
Cox, who also directs several episodes this season, leads a cast that includes Brian Van Holt as Bobby, her underachieving ex-husband; Christa Miller as Ellie, her next-door neighbor and BFF; Ian Gomez as Andy, Ellie’s go-along-to-get-along husband, and Oak Park-born Busy Philipps as party girl Laurie. Hopkins plays Jules’ laid-back, bartending husband, Grayson, while Dan Byrd is her 21-year-old son, Travis, who’s often the most sensible one of the bunch.
“People who are fans of the show will be happy that really nothing has changed,” said Chicago native Emily Wilson, a new addition to the “Cougar Town” writers’ room this season.
Wilson was hired along with fellow Chicagoan Brad Morris. Both came up through Chicago’s comedy circuit, training and performing at iO, the Annoyance and the Second City, where they worked together on a trio of shows” “Taming of the Flu,” “No Country for Old White Men” and “America: All Better!”
“I’m so proud of my affiliation with Second City, other than how terrible the titles of the shows are,” said Morris, who acknowledges the irony of now working for one of the worst-named shows on television.
“The show was lightly about the idea of cougars [older women preying on younger men] for like four episodes in the first season,” Morris said. “It sort of was the reason that I didn’t give it a lot of time early on.”
Morris and Wilson get some on-screen time, too, popping up in various small roles throughout the season. In the premiere, Morris plays a guy named Jerry who makes the mistake of loaning Bobby money. Wilson appears in the third episode as an AA sponsor to Bobby’s new alter ego, Ron Mexico. But Wilson and Morris’ funniest performances take place online in a series of webisodes to promote the show — something ABC neglected to do.
In a fit of self-promotion, Lawrence once rallied cast members and visited bars in various cities to watch episodes with the public.
“We would ask them all, all you owe us for the free drinks and the T-shirts and the getting to ask Courteney Cox out on a date 10 times is tell 10 friends to check the show out,” Lawrence told the TV critics. “It exposed what I think is a small fallacy in the system. At every venue, and I’d say in the grand scheme of things we saw thousands upon thousands of people, I would ask, ‘Is anybody a Nielsen family or has anybody met one?’ [Referring to households equipped with a Nielsen box to measure TV ratings]. And the answer was always no.”
The “Cougar Town” webisodes — well worth a watch at tbs.com — show Morris and Wilson dropping in on each of the cast members, introducing themselves as new writers who clearly have no idea what the show is about. The jaunty opening jingle explains, “They’re two terrible new writers that Bill had to hire because he lost a bet. They’re Brad and Emily, and they’re the absolute worst!”
“Everybody improvised,” Wilson said. “We didn’t give anybody any lines, which was really fun for us coming from Chicago and iO and the Annoyance and having that background. It was fun to do it with people at that level.”
Lawrence just thinks it’s fun to be at a network that wants to promote “Cougar Town,” whether it be through webisodes, billboards or ads.
“There’s, like, commercials for the show now,” he said. “It’s insane.”