Last season, Cougar Town was in a holding pattern. The inventiveness that characterized its first few seasons was missing, and in its place characters were recreating old storylines and jokes, while the show’s continuity floundered around with no real developments. That all ended at its season finale, though, which blew past all of this and took the show in a new direction with Laurie’s pregnancy. This was a big change in and of itself, but more importantly, it signaled a return to new storylines, and new ideas—at least, hopefully. After a season where even the characters seemed tired of the stagnation they’d been written into, it at least implied there would be a return to stakes (however minimal) and serialization.
“American Dream Plan B” picks up eight months into Laurie’s pregnancy, which has not been going as swimmingly as she’d hoped. Laurie’s angry and unhappy, while Travis is freaking out about his clumsiness and feelings of unpreparedness as a father. With Cougar Town it’s never really been about what problems are at hand, though, so much as the crazy ways characters deal with things. For instance, Laurie expresses her discontent with everyone and everything by wielding socks filled with nickels and hurling them at whatever pisses her off. It’s suitably weird, and perfectly fitting. No one really thinks she’s unjustified, either, they’d just prefer they weren’t the ones being pelted. Likewise, when Travis seeks fatherly advice from Grayson, his stepfather insists on going through an elaborate Matrix training parody. It’s a little bit cheesy, but the show’s smart self-awareness has returned, and it ends up one of the episode’s highlights.
What I like about Cougar Town has always been that, while its characters legitimately care about each other, they still take everything too far. Case in point: one of Laurie’s primary irritations concerns the dietary restrictions she’s put on as a pregnant woman, i.e. she can’t drink wine. This is Cougar Town—where red wine is like water. So this is a real problem. Jules offers for everyone else to quit drinking until Laurie gives birth, but neither she, nor anyone else, can keep to this promise. Instead, Tom creates a speakeasy in his house and secretly serves the cul-de-sac crew so long as they wear 1920s garb. While there’s no way that this can last before Laurie finds out about it, this is a great conceit and just strange enough to be enchanting. It’s rare that the show really knows what to do with Tom, too, and for once he really shines.
Both Travis and Laurie’s storylines are effectively concluded with the assistance of Jules, as she offers Laurie advice (in order to return to drinking) and calls Sniglet, Tom’s missing pig Travis was babysitting, back to him. Yet the episode doesn’t end there, which really shows Cougar Town returning to form. Having solved both of their problems, Jules feels smothered by their reliance upon her, given that she doesn’t want the responsibility of raising a kid again, nor should she have to. It’s an interesting source of tension in the show, and really offers a return to emotional complexity on the series, as Jules’ feelings about her son’s pregnancy aren’t just positive one. It’s impossible to say whether this will become a bigger part of the season, but it’s nice to not have everything wrapped up neatly. And this also works as a meta-commentary on the show’s tendency to do just that so frequently.
More than anything, though, it was the quality of this episode’s jokes, particularly its signature running gags, that worked so well. Jokes about Tom’s overestimation of his popularity, the constant presence of Bobby, even though he wasn’t in the episode, and—above all—Grayson talking about his long-forgotten (by the show’s characters and, let’s face it, audience) daughter were all excellent. There was a tightness to the writing that was missing from almost all of last season. Cougar Town is no longer riding on its cast, as “American Dream Plan B” was complex and strange in all the right ways. It’s always impossible to guess how the rest of a season will turn out from the premiere, but this is a great way to kick things off.