Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Cougar Town" and "Accidentally on Purpose": More than Just Women with Younger Guys

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Sitcom veterans Courteney Cox and Jenna Elfman are back on prime time network television, and based on how their characters are conducting their love lives, Chandler and Greg would be shocked. Beyond the older woman-younger guy themes, though, "Cougar Town" (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. Eastern) and "Accidentally on Purpose" (CBS, Mondays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern) don't have a whole lot in common, reflecting the sensibilities of their networks more than their central plot device.

"Cougar Town," the new sitcom created by Bill Lawrence (the mastermind behind "Scrubs"; he co-wrote and directed the "Cougar Town" pilot), fits perfectly into ABC's wheelhouse. A single-camera comedy (like "Scrubs") that tries to take serious subject matter and combine it with wacky comedy (like "Scrubs"), but which also challenges the audience with its quick-cut, circuitous storytelling (like "Scrubs"). That formula often adds up to critical gushing (like I have done regularly about "Scrubs") and low ratings (like "Scrubs"). ABC has been the network most likely to take chances like this, seemingly reveling in programs, both in comedy and drama, that are high-quality but tough sells (like "Scrubs").

But "Cougar Town" has a secret weapon: A genuine sitcom star, one who spent 10 seasons on one of the most successful comedy series of all time (definitely not like "Scrubs"). If Cox can bring any kind of audience along with her, Lawrence and ABC might have a well-earned -- if surprising -- hit on their hands. Or, at least what passes for a hit nowadays with sitcoms, which really just entails bringing in a respectable audience that is strong in the advertiser-coveted demographic.

Despite the fun I had with the "Scrubs" comparisons, "Cougar Town" is really quite different in tone and feel, largely, I suspect, due to the presence of Cox, who is more than capable of taking the lead in a sitcom (after 10 years of sharing time with her five co-stars on "Friends"). Here, she plays real estate agent Jules, recently divorced from her ne'er (e'er, e'er, e'er) do well aspiring golf pro husband, Bobby (Brian Van Holt). Jules is trying to figure out how to navigate the dating scene as a 40-year-old woman, preferably without totally mortifying her high school-aged son, Travis ("Aliens in America"'s Dan Byrd, hopefully not finding himself in another well-received, low-rated, canceled-after-one-season sitcom).

Jules is not off to a great post-divorce start. As the premiere episode unfolds, we see that her young co-worker Laurie ("Freaks & Geeks" alumnae Busy Philipps) has made advertisement lawn signs for Jules using a sexy photo taken when they were drunk, and the placards soon become objects of theft for a besotted junior high school student. And it only goes downhill from there, as Jules causes a neighborhood kid to crash his bike when she flashes her bathrobe at him (she's wearing a bra and panties underneath), all to make a point to her newly divorced neighbor, Grayson (Josh Hopkins of "Swingtown"), who beds a succession of willing twentysomethings (he tells one as he leads her to her morning taxi, "It's not a walk of shame if I do it with you").

Meanwhile, Jules's long-time best friend (and next-door neighbor), Ellie (Lawrence's wife, Christa Miller, "Scrubs"), feels like she's losing Jules to Laurie, because Ellie is stuck at home with her baby boy (named Stan, prompting Laurie to ask her, "Stan? What is he, 60?") and her annoying husband, Andy (Ian Gomez of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding").

"Cougar Town" is funny, and in more ways than one. Cox has plenty of opportunities to exhibit her gift for physical comedy, whether it involves hunting and chasing her junior high school admirer or, as she does in the opening of the pilot, exploring every possible flabby portion of her body, from her elbows to her belly (the first of three times in the pilot that Cox strips down to next to nothing). She also does a great job with Lawrence's patented clever dialogue. (Her speech to Laurie, who wants her to go out more: "I have to act my age. I mean, one night out on the prowl, and the next thing you know, I'm at a Jonas Brothers concert wearing a mini skirt, sporting some giant collagen hot dog lips.")

And Cox's interactions with her co-stars work, especially with Byrd. The two have a very funny, very touching rapport, as you know Travis is absolutely humiliated by his mother's antics (he walks in on her while she is going down on a twentysomething boy toy; the next morning he takes the banana she is eating out of her hands and says, "You're not allowed to eat these anymore"), but at the same time, they connect. (An early exchange before Travis goes out with his friend Ryan: Jules, "Home by midnight. And if I ever catch you two drinking and driving I'm going to show everyone that baby picture of you two holding each other's penises. So small." Travis, "You know, Ryan's mom just says goodbye.")

But as funny as "Cougar Town" is, what sets it apart as a program is how Lawrence and Cox have built a character who subverts your expectations based on how films and television have handled newly divorced women in their 40s. Rather than be useless and needy, Jules is more nuanced, generally confused, determined not to be intimidated, but vulnerable just the same. She's not embarrassed to be single or sexual, and she's not ashamed to be caught in an embarrassing situation. When an older potential home buyer with a young trophy wife overhears Jules make a joke about the bedroom being where they'll find the "thousand-year-old husband" dead on his wife, the man calls down to her, "I'm sixty-four," to which an unbowed Jules snaps back, "Great acoustics," turning her faux pas into a selling point. Later, when the geezer overhears her making another crack about his age and tells her he is right above her, Jules calmly responds, "Yes you are," before adding, "Please buy the house."

While from the beginning Jules expresses her confusion of her new role to Laurie (who is always trying to get her to go out and look for men), really, it isn't until her behavior affects Travis that she becomes genuinely more conflicted about it. I think a telling moment occurs at the end of the premiere, after she promises Travis that she'll try not to embarrass him anymore. The second he is out the door, Jules's young lover emerges and they are off to the bedroom to go at it again. Jules loves her son, but it doesn't mean she is not going to try and live her new single life, too. And since she's a genuinely kind person (as we see in the way she takes care of her boorish ex-husband, to whom she pays alimony, as well as Travis, Laurie and Ellie) who in many moments seems comfortable with who she is, we root for her, especially after her speech to Grayson about how scary it is to be 40 and alone, knowing that her looks will fade and she will likely never get remarried (coming, of course, after a very funny moment when she yells across the street to Grayson, while he is with his latest very young conquest, "Stop having sex with babies!").

I hope that Cox's notoriety brings an audience to this quirky comedy. It deserves to be seen.

The very different "Accidentally on Purpose" is more in keeping with CBS's approach to sitcoms, a multi-camera comedy that is far broader than the more realistic situations and sets presented in "Cougar Town." Less like its Monday night cohorts "How I Met Your Mother" and "Big Bang Theory" and more in line with the approach of its other neighbor "Two and a Half Men" (not that it's awful like that show, but that it is broader in its comedy and conventionally filmed and presented, with only a few key locations and exceptionally stagy -- nice word for "fake" -- sets), "Accidentally on Purpose" puts Elfman (of "Dharma and Greg") into the role of Billie, a San Francisco film critic (in the poshest news room in the history of television) who has recently broken up with her wealthy boss (there are wealthy people in the dying newspaper business?), James (Grant Show, another "Swingtown" alum finding a spot on a new sitcom), because he won't propose to her.

Like Jules, Billie's best friend, Olivia (Ashley Jensen, Ricky Gervais's pal on "Extras"), pushes her to go out, and with her sister Abby (Lennon Parham) in tow, they end up at a bar at which a twentysomething "second assistant to a semi-important sous chef" ("Basically, I boil things"), Zack (Jon Foster "Life as We Know It"), and his doofus friends hit on Billie. Billie goes home with Zack, and the two continue on for five weeks, when Billie finds herself pregnant. After about three seconds of thinking about it, she decides to have the baby, since she thinks it may be her last chance. She tells Zack, who says he wants to be a part of the baby's life, and when he loses his room after his friend's brother gets out of prison (he tells Billie, "not violent, drug-related"), she asks him to move into her posh apartment (on a film critic's salary?), but just as friends. No sex involved.

The rest of the pilot of "Accidentally on Purpose" is predictable. James tells Billie he's ready to take their relationship to the next level (he says they can live together, which in his mind means spending some nights at his place, some nights at hers), and before Billie can say anything, Zack shows up and James finds out Billie is pregnant by him. The two nearly come to blows, age jokes are tossed around, and you can't decide if you're more amused or bored by something you've seen a million times before. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

"Accidentally on Purpose" has its comic moments. (Cute lines like, Billie: "What was I supposed to do? Let the father of my child live in a van so he can be hacked up by some crazy drifter?" Olivia: "He lives in a van. He is the crazy drifter.") Elfman is a talented comedian. I liked Parham's funny deadpan delivery. (Billie: "Holy crap, you didn't tell mom." Abby, with a panicked look: "Okay.").

I'm sure I'll continue to watch "Accidentally on Purpose." But it's not at the level of "Cougar Town." Billie (like the rest of the characters on the show) lives up to every cliche that Jules explodes. Not to overthink a silly sitcom (Who am I kidding? That's what I do), but it's almost like Billie is punished for having a sexually-driven relationship with a younger man by getting pregnant, and it's only through making the relationship about more than sex that the bond is validated. In contrast, at the end of "Cougar Town," Jules is about to have an encore with her fling, seemingly guilt- (and punishment-) free.

With sitcoms becoming a dying art, I am always happy to see new half-hour comedies on the air that are actually funny. "Accidentally on Purpose," largely based on the charms of its star, could very well provide some laughs on Mondays after "How I Met Your Mother." But "Cougar Town," thanks to the combination of Cox and Lawrence, and the funny and compelling world they've created, has a chance to be more than that, a worthy successor to Lawrence's "Scrubs," but maybe this time with a larger audience. I would be very happy to see that happen.