By its fifth season, Cougar Town has so thoroughly removed any real aspects of conflict from the show that it’s become the most strangely neutral space on television. I have a certain admiration for the show going in this direction, as it’s now focused on character relationships to the exclusion of practically everything else, but it does create a struggle to stay interesting for 22 minutes a week. It’s an unintentionally experimental direction for a sitcom to go in, one which to a certain extent can’t really sustain itself, though it’s more realistic because of that. No longer are there “will they/won’t they” stories or worries about school and jobs and other light drama; instead a Cougar Town story can be just Andy taking his best friend and his son to the beach.
That was a third of “Mystery of Love,” and it’s indicative of the direction the show has taken. And while that beach trip was perfectly enjoyable, it was also just good enough while the rest of the episode was exciting. Essentially, with all of these characters stuck in their positions—and not in a pejorative way, as they’re quite happy where they are in life—Cougar Town asks what it is they do to make one day different from the last. Andy’s answer was to try to have fun with his son, and it offered us a pretty rote version of that peppered with a few wonderful jokes (I liked that they didn’t just steal the sandwiches, they feasted on them as if they were the family who’d packed them), but the other two stories had more ambition (though the same light stakes).
Ellie as a YA author made perfect sense. While she “raises” Stan, there’s always been a question of how she fills her days, and it turns out that for a little while it was by trying her hand at writing. Because this story focused on her and Tom, too, it ended up particularly enjoyable, as Ellie’s pure condescension towards him has always been entertaining. What made the story, though, was the small glimpse of the book we got to hear her and Tom read. We learned an awful lot about those stupid characters and their adventures traveling through time, and the payoff of Ellie’s new ending was perfect. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to make of Tom’s book club, but even that featured the odd mixture of fantasy and reality that Cougar Town excels at.
The real tour de force this week, though, was the brunch between Jules, Grayson, Travis and Laurie. The younger pair is annoyed about not being treated seriously, so they go all out and serve the world’s most impressive brunch (that one of them is a professional pastry chef probably doesn’t hurt). That this is the type of insecurity that’s causing problems for these characters says something about how idyllic the world they live in is, but that’s also because it’s just the relationships between everyone that ultimately matter to the show. It really is important for Laurie and Travis to feel like they belong, and Cougar Town does a good job of getting that across to us. Likewise, Jules’ insecurity about being shown up by her son is both ridiculous and legitimate.
With both the brunch and beach stories, the show focused on the micro-level problems of these characters who are otherwise doing fine. But these are still problems to them, so spending time to have stories about these things makes sense. Cougar Town never goes the Seinfeld route, either, with characters inflating minor problems to monumental size—at least it doesn’t for very long. There’s a sense of perspective to the show in that way, a realization that ultimately when you have a good job and a loving family, there’s not that much some wine can’t fix. Cougar Town has been slowly adjusting to this for years, and while it doesn’t make for the world’s most exciting television, for a light comedy it’s doing fine and is starting to become weirdly unique, going the opposite of every other show in the genre by constantly removing obstacles from its characters’ paths rather than inventing new ones.