The fact is that in almost every case, not every episode of a television show can be special. There’s a lot of air-time to fill in a season, and—perhaps more importantly—not that much time to write and shoot the episodes that fill it. One of the benchmarks for a show, then, ends up being how well a normal, somewhat phoned-in episode turns out.
“Learning to Fly” was one of those Cougar Town episodes that clearly wasn’t anyone’s particular favorite, but that doesn’t mean it was shoddily crafted. The opposite, in fact, is the case. “Learning” was simply that: crafted. It wasn’t an object of love, but it was extremely well-made in a very classical sitcom structure that delivered what it promised—nothing more and nothing less. It began with a first act that had little to do with the rest of the episode, a cul-de-sac rummage sale, and in a move copying The Simpsons, pulled three diverging stories from these small events.
Each of these stories (Ellie not being sarcastic, Travis and his dad facing their fear of rollercoasters and Jules trying to fix her karmic balance) was kind of lame. Ellie’s in particular was something Cougar Town has done before, to the point where I’m happy whenever there isn’t a story about her that doesn’t want her to change her behavior in some way or another. Likewise, Travis and Bobby’s story could’ve been featured on just about any sitcom, while Jules’ karmic journey was a complete non-starter—admittedly, though, Jules is kind of flat as a character and her stories are always the most difficult to make interesting. None of these stuck out, instead they seemed like ideas that presumably in the writing room were just good enough to get the episode approved.
The thing is, Cougar Town isn’t really an interesting show because of its stories, which resort to these sorts of mediocre ideas more often than they really should. It’s about the characters and the weird world of Gulfhaven. My favorite moment of the episode came when we cut to Bobby on what, at first glance, appears to be a rollercoaster only to immediately be shown that it’s just him on a chair in front of Travis’ greenscreen. This, on the other hand, is a Cougar Town moment, as was the look of glee on Ellie’s face when she used her bet-required sumo suit to bump the man next to her in the line for the rollercoaster. The inevitable destruction of Big Tippi and the way Bobby uses a broken television to store his money—those were what the show’s about. The rest of the episode, as is often the case, is only there to give Cougar Town excuses to feature these bits of strange brilliance.
Cougar Town always gets the details correct, and that’s where the laughs and joy of the show generally comes from. You don’t laugh at it because there’s anything particularly entertaining about Jules’ search, but rather because even Travis thinks that karma must be referring to Laurie’s “wrestler friend.” When the show reaches for a plot that’s above average, it can make for something very special, but week in and week out, it knows how to do filler episodes right. The stories it tells may be middling at best, but the storytelling is always excellent, which is why “Learning to Fly” is still a fun piece of television.