"Cougar Town" returns to television tonight, not on ABC, where it was born in 2009, but on TBS, which acquired it after ABC (whose ABC Studios remains involved) decided that 3 million viewers and change was not enough to be going on with. And that is a lesson in the economics of broadcast network television.
Originally, and sadly, the show was hung on the whole "cougar" thing that seemed worth discussing back then -- older women dating younger men, though perhaps "dating" isn't quite the right word. Courteney Cox, for whom the series was created -- by Bill Lawrence, who created "Scrubs," and Kevin Biegel, who worked on it -- played a hot fortysomething back on the prowl after a divorce.
But "cougar" as a concept proved to be no more remarkable on television than in life, and after struggling for a while to justify its title, the producers let the original premise go and began to apologize for it instead, posting messages in the opening credits, such as, "New Year's Resolutions: Embrace Our Stupid Title and Lose Six Pounds," "Not What the Show Is" and, "She's marrying a man her own age, so why is it called Cougar Town?"
As in "Community," whose actual, and substantial, heart remained hidden as long as the producers endeavored to make a show about characters with relatively realistic motivations in a relatively realistic setting, "Cougar Town" found its feet when it abandoned itself to the mutual chemistry of its ensemble and just let them hang out and drink.
They play games and make rules and rewrite the language to suit themselves -- as tonight, when Cox's Jules decides that "junk in the trunk" should mean "emotional baggage," or in last season's closer, when she decreed that "fat chance" must mean that a thing is likely, because "slim chance" means it is not.
Except for fewer location shoots and guest stars, the move to TBS has been accomplished without injury; there is still a nice meta, fantastic charge to the humor and though the title card on the opening episode read asks, "Can we curse on TV now?" the writers still prefer to work in metaphors, and euphemisms. And though there are perhaps more sex jokes now, they are somehow less desperate from the run of that mill; it is even suggested -- a TV heresy -- that a little of it may be enough.
The series has stayed irreverent and inappropriate -- and downright irresponsible, some might say, on the subject of alcohol, a point to which the writers are not insensible. ("Wow, are you guys all alcoholics? Are you all in AA?" Jules' son, Travis, played by Dan Byrd, asks in the opening moments of Tuesday's episode, as his mother and her friends get down to business. "Honey, that's two different questions," his mother replies, answering neither of them.) The characters drink buckets without seeming to get drunk -- it is a running joke more than a dramatic reality, and a symbol of their bonding -- which also robs them of the excuse of having been drunk. Everyone owns their shame.
They are generous and cruel, though mostly the former. But even their cruelty has a way of working around to something positive and loving.