After five or six seasons, most sitcoms hit a point in their writing process where storylines are being proposed less because they’re a good idea and more because a character pairing hasn’t been used before. This makes sense, because a lot of what drives a sitcom forward is the unique chemistry between characters, so there’s a chance at something strange and hilarious coming out of this switching around. Likewise, it can keep things from getting same-y. That being said, there’s usually more than a bit of desperation to this sort of story, a “might as well try this” attitude that signals that the writers are running low on ideas.
Fortunately that wasn’t the only thing going on in “Two Men Talking,” but there was undeniably a lot of that in the decision to make Ellie and Travis have an “emotional affair.” After all, given Cougar Town’s level of utopian, laid back optimism, there’s no way the show could deal with a real affair, or even much relationship drama. The show’s couples are set in stone, even ones, like Ellie’s, that are kind of a mess, so this is the closest thing Cougar Town can do to dramatizing something like that. The problem is just how forced this is, the rationale behind this pair’s relationship being that cars are really soothing.Yup, that’s it. I’m willing to go pretty far with Cougar Town, to accept its absurd premises without batting an eye, but this one just felt lazy.
Travis and Ellie are fun together, which comes as no surprise, and I enjoyed the show taking on the stereotypes of affairs, even though this was brief. It was just that the whole thing could’ve been fleshed out more and given some substance. This was a story you could tell from the very beginning would be forgotten by next episode, and that always means very, very low stakes. Compared with the other strange pairings in the episode, this story was a bust, even though it was by far the weirdest.
Andy’s attempt, with Laurie’s help, to join the cool mom’s clique at the park was much better, particularly because it didn’t just come out of the blue. Laurie and Andy kept acting like themselves, instead of becoming randomly devoid of their personalities because they’re in a car, and there’s a real sense that this relationship makes sense. They are both parents, and I have a lot of appreciation for the show gradually putting more focus on that part of life, rather than going the Parks and Recreation route and pretending it doesn’t exist. Cougar Town isn’t about parenting, it’s about growing older, but even in a world with this elastic a reality that has drastic effects on who a person is and how they spend their time.
The last story worked because it was a fake-out of trying to do the same “switch the pairings” thing three times. Jules’ father seems restless without any friends since moving to Gulfhaven, and she wants Grayson to spend time with him. Most stories around her dad are kind of a bust because he’s just not that interesting of a character, but here the episode isn’t about him, and he’s only given a few goofy minutes on-screen (plus the lying about your birthday gag was the type of disrespect that the show is rarely willing to use with him). It turns out, Grayson hasn’t befriended the guy, they’ve just decided to hide from Jules that he’s started dating, which turns a possibly tedious story on its head.
At the very least, Cougar Town is still trying new material and seeing where it can draw stories from. Particularly important is that it’s not returning to the status quo of its last two seasons, and we’re already onto stories about Andy as a parent and Ellie returning to work as a lawyer. Not everything is working, but the show’s overall narrative keeps moving forward and preventing Cougar Town from dropping its momentum.