There’s always been a push-pull on Cougar Town between the needs of a continuous story, and the traditional sitcom trope of putting everything back to where it was at the beginning of an episode. This was, I suspect, one of the reasons why the writers at Community became interested in the show, as Community has its own problems in that regard. What’s been surprising with Cougar Town’s final season has been its willingness to question the status quo it’s maintained since the show’s beginning, giving it a real narrative thrust that the show lacked for a very long time.
Case in point, at the beginning of “The Wrong Thing to Do,” Andy is still without a job he lost two episodes ago. It’s now been a month within the show’s timeline, and he’s spent his time during the interim playing with his son Stan and giving the kid the parental attention he’s largely lacked over the past few years. Ellie hates this going on in the background, and wants him to get a job, but Andy doesn’t really listen to her, and it takes Jules’ meddling to get him back to interviewing for jobs.
Most of the episode is about training Andy for job interviews, which is an intermittently funny, intermittently training montage-y sort of thing. It recapitulated something the show has gone over many times in the past, i.e. a character overcoming their fears, but with more purpose than usual. Money, one of those topics that rarely shows up in Cougar Town, is actually mentioned. While we know that there will be a happy ending, there are stakes here, and that gives the entire story some real heft. What’s particularly great about the last minute revelation that Andy doesn’t want to go back to work, he really wants to be a stay-at-home dad, is that this is something the show has been building in the background for years. Ellie’s happiness and glow at this role reversal don’t feel tacked on, rather her reaction feels like a natural evolution for their relationship.
Speaking of which, Ellie’s story at first felt like pretty much a throwaway, and seems all kinds of lazy. She competes with Grayson over Bobby’s now-abandoned boat as a sanctuary from the craziness of their houses back in the cul-de-sac. But because we don’t care who gets the boat, it’s clear that there’s something missing here. And while Ellie and many other characters have certainly had largely unmotivated stories in the past, Christa Miller does a good job of portraying the fact that Ellie is really forcing this. She wants a game to play because she really is bored, and this has been a growing problem for her character since almost the beginning of the show. When this story collides with Andy’s, there’s an elegant ending that promises to lead to more interesting stories for the rest of the season. That’s the great thing about serialization of stories rather than episodic—when they work out well, there’s an additive element that makes the show, even one that’s been around this long, feel refreshed and somewhat new again.
The story unrelated to Andy’s was actually pretty great, too. Tom is an odd character in that most of his solo storylines are kind of misfires, yet his presence adds a lot to the show. This may be one of the only times his story works, though, probably because of how it plays with the same elements as the rest of the episode—questioning whether Tom’s role in the cul-de-sac crew really makes sense. After all, he’s the millionaire brain surgeon, so why should he be the dorky guy no one wants to talk to? After being informed that pretty much every female doctor is interested in him (all of whom are, coincidentally, gorgeous), he takes Ellie’s suggestion to go and ask one of them out. This goes so well he asks another out. Then several others. By the end of “The Wrong Thing to Do,” he seems to be dating half the hospital, though he now wears bronzer and is a pretty big jerk. And yeah that bronzer….
Unlike Andy and Ellie’s story, though, this is clearly a dead end. It’s an interesting “what if?” proposition, but not somewhere Cougar Town actually wants to go, and Tom’s background status also means that we don’t really care whether he changes and develops as a character. So he returns to being normal Tom due to his unrequited crush on Jules, which is a quick fix, but fine for a story that was never meant to really go anywhere. This is the type of diversion that works, though, because it’s goofy fun that plays with our expectations.
What’s also great is that, rather than having this story blow up, we’re shown that Tom really could live this life for as long as he wants. It’s just not as fulfilling to him as being Jules’ friend, which is both sweet and sad. So long as everything else moves forward, even these stories that don’t do so, feel better because there’s the possibility of change. Just having that as an option in Cougar Town, instead of the stasis of last season, makes it exciting. No, Tom probably won’t become a lothario, but there’s at least an outside chance—after all, who’d think that Ellie would start working again?