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Sitcom Television's Most Warped and Unsettling Marriage

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | February 20, 2013 | Comments ()


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One of the more interesting marriages in sitcom television right now is the one between Andy (Ian Gomez) and Ellie Torres (Christa Miller) over on Cougar Town. Their marriage tracks a familiar emasculated-husband trope that's been around since the dawn of television. Because of Christa Miller's abrasive, berating sense of humor, however, that trope is rooted deeper than in most sitcom marriages: She is the smart one; he is the dumb, goofy one; she is always right; and he is always wrong, but by the end of each episode, they always seem to find ways to reconfirm their love for one another.

Their marriage, however, has taken a strange turn, starting with the end of the run on ABC, a turn that has continued along the same path in "Cougar Town's" first season on TBS. The twist has been wicked, and while it's still rooted in comedy, it's nevertheless often unpleasant: Andy is no longer the dopey husband with an adorable bromance with Bobby Cobb (with shades of J.D. and Turk from Bill Lawrence's old show, "Scrubs"), he's very often being treated with hostility and repugnance. Take last week's episode of "Cougar Town," the Valentine's Day episode. In it, we discover that each year, Ellie gives Andy a coupon for sex, redeemable at any time. She thought the gift clever because, every year, Andy loses the coupon, sparing her from the indignity of having sex with her husband. The twist, however, was that Andy had been secreting the coupons away for years, and having amassed ten of them, he planned to redeem them all in quick succession. Ellie's response? To run away.

She'd rather hide than have sex with her husband.

In the end, of course, Andy and Ellie make-up, but not for reasons typical of conventional sitcom marriages: Ellie realizes that she should be thankful that her husband wants to climb up on her all the time, but it's also important for her husband to understand that she doesn't like to have sex with the same frequency as he. She's just not "built like that." The sweet, heartfelt moment came when Andy ripped up the rest of the coupons, sparing Ellie from the unwanted sexual advances of her husband. The traditional sitcom cues were there: We were expected to feel pleased about their reconciliation and smile sweetly at this tender moment, but all I was left with was a gnawing unpleasantness.

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It's not the first such instance of this in "Cougar Town," either: At the end of the third season, at a resort hosting Jules' (Courteney Cox) wedding, Ellie spent much of the episode making passes at the host, contemplating the many things she would do to him in bed. She did this both away from and in front of her husband, and when Andy would protest ("Hey! I'm standing right here"), she would dismiss him, and continue salivating over the studly host. In another recent episode, Ellie attempted to train Bobby Cobb in good manners by going out on rehearsal dates with him, while Andy stood idly by and not, ultimately, ended up rooting for them to have a moment, egging Bobby Cobb to kiss his wife. The series, especially recently, is littered in instances like these: Ellie is consistently repulsed by her husband, while Andy is consistently emasculated, dismissed, or worse, ignored (to be fair, to a lesser extent, this is also true of Jules and Grayson's marriage; in fact, "Cougar Town" doesn't really think much of men).

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This is not particularly new in sitcom television, of course. Al Bundy made a habit of this on "Married ... with Children," grimacing at the thought of enduring sexual intercourse with his wife, although those tropes are seen as archaic and misogynistic now, and rightly so. This same dynamic, of course, also existed with Christa Miller's last character, Jordan Sullivan in "Scrubs," where she exhibited the same behavior toward her ex-husband, lover, and father of her child, Dr. Cox. But it felt different there: Dr. Cox was a more challenging, more assertive character, and he treated her with the same animosity. They were a well-matched pair who found a connection through their mutual loathing.

That dynamic is tremendously lopsided in "Cougar Town," and I'm not entirely sure what Bill Lawrence -- who created these characters and set them on this track before handing the show over to a new showrunner -- is trying to say about the marriage. It's a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship, and while it could be played for laughs in "Scrubs," where Dr. Cox could give as good as he received, in "Cougar Town" there is something very unsettling about it, increasingly so as the series progresses.

In truth, I don't think that Andy and Ellie belong together, notwithstanding last night's episode which revealed -- with a modicum of sweetness -- the origin of their relationship, and Ellie's confession that she doesn't think she deserves Andy. That's probably the most accurate thing she's said about her marriage. Andy deserves someone like Bobby who reciprocates his affection, while Ellie needs to be with someone like Dr. Cox, who loves through hate.

In sitcom television, divorce is as uncommon as a marriage in which the husband is characterized as the smart one (seriously: Think about it. Name one modern sitcom marriage in which the husband has the control in the relationship? Dharma and Greg is about as close as you'll get). Divorce wasn't even mentioned in "The Brady Bunch." Divorce was played for laughs in "Friends" and it was robbed of emotion in "Curb Your Enthusiasm," where the characters were mostly misanthropic and unlikable. Very few sitcom writers ever come to the conclusion that their couples, ultimately, aren't meant for each other. But as much as it pains me to say so, because I love both characters individually, Andy and Ellie do not belong together. With at least 8 episodes remaining (if not more, if "Cougar Town" is renewed), I don't want to see Andy taken for granted, berated, disrespected, and shat upon by his wife any longer. It's not funny, and while that's true of many elements in "Cougar Town" since Bill Lawrence left the series, Andy deserves better than being the wincing punchline to Ellie's unhappiness.

In fact, Andy and Ellie's relationship increasingly epitomizes the tone of the entire show: The jabs and insults used to feel more adoring and affectionate, but since the move to TBS, they feel more cruel and mean-spirited. It's still a show that I like very much, but the new showrunner has lost the balance between sweet and bitter, and the comedy, tinged in discomfort, has suffered for it.


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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Donna SHerman

    "The jabs and insults used to feel more adoring and affectionate, but since the move to TBS, they feel more cruel and mean-spirited."

    Agreed. It's a fine line to walk, and they've...er, fallen off the tightrope?

  • Marsupial

    Wha?? My wife and I were just talking about how Ellie was softened up this season, and how her character was getting nicer - almost too nice.

  • Wow, when I need to show anybody an article that is so unbelievably misleading and wrong, this is the article I will show them.

    Rowles you have skipped over all the stuff that makes their marriage work and how it's healthy just to fit your warped view of their marriage. Guess what, not all marriages are the same. Some of us (this includes me and my partner, and also several of our coupled friends which are literally some of the most loving and supportive relationships I have ever seen) love banter and ragging on each other. If you think making a joke at your partner's expense is automatically "belittling" them then I'm afraid you haven't seen many fun, healthy relationships.

  • kirbyjay

    More so than seeming to give women the power in the relationship, I've always felt that tv shows in general like to portray men as the "fun" ones while the wives are the bitchy taskmasters.

    That said, it's a comedy. If you're worried about alcoholism, sexism, troubled marriages and casual sex, there are always afternoon specials and documentaries that will explore these issues with a little more realism. I just watch Cougar Town to laugh.

  • DominaNefret

    The add on this post says "Manchin is helping Obama TAKE YOUR GUNS!"
    Not only do I still find Manchin to be a hilarious name, but I always think it is funny how many conservative political ads I end up seeing on this site.

  • John G.

    Ellie is consistently repulsed by her husband, while Andy is consistently emasculated, dismissed, or worse, ignored (to be fair, to a lesser extent, this is also true of Jules and Grayson’s marriage; in fact, “Cougar Town” doesn’t really think much of men).

    This is interesting. I get that it's dehumanizing to be treated as unwanted and unloved by your spouse, but how does it "emasculate" him? I mean, did she cut off his penis? How is a man supposed to be treated to make him more of a man? I mean, what is the role of the husband in a relationship that is particularly "male" or "masculine", and are their similar roles for women in a relationship, behaviors that are definitively "female" or "feminine"?

  • F'mal DeHyde

    "Al Bundy made a habit of this on “Married … with Children,” grimacing at
    the thought of enduring sexual intercourse with his wife, although
    those tropes are seen as archaic and misogynistic now, and rightly so."

    What? Al's distaste for sex with Peg was that much funnier since Peg was sex on legs and built like a brick shithouse. And Al was a misanthrope, he didn't discriminate.

    A loser husband not wanting to have sex with his gorgeous wife is considered misogynistic, huh? I'm apparently not intelligent enough to be reading at this site then because that one completely escapes me.

  • babykangarootribbiani

    and i thought it was just me who noticed that ever since cougar town started on tbs, the jokes that used to be fun and light now just seem kind of mean. and last night;s was the first one this year i;ve really enjoyed because it was the first one that had the same heart it did when bill lawrence was running the show. and i;m saying this as someone who loves cougar town. i have the first two seasons on DVD, i identified it as my favorite TV show in my TV criticism class and watched every single person in the room except the instructor give me the confused dog head tilt. but it;s really missing something this year. that and the end of season three was as near perfect of an ending as one can find, i mean, the main character marries her love and rides off the into the sunset on horseback? you don;t get a better ending than that.

  • jane

    But . . . Ellie treats everybody that way, with the exception of maybe Jules. That's just who she is -- everyone knows it, including Andy and herself.

  • Lotney

    Call me ADHDed but I just can't read anything close to one of those gifs.

  • I always have to scroll up or down to keep them hidden. But! Try hitting your escape key and it should get them to stop playing once you've seen them.

  • Slash

    I don't like "Cougar Town" as much now. And Courteney Cox's face (esp. her mouth) is kinda creeping me out. Maybe it's the makeup. Or whatever else she's had done to her face.

  • Sammers

    I completely agree. There used to be a balance between the meanness and the sweet moments, and not just between Andy & Ellie, but the entire Cul de Sac Crew. Now more often than not, the episodes are just plain mean. These last few episodes have been difficult for me to watch and I find myself wanting to give up on the Crew.

  • ChuggaWasTaken

    I somewhat disagree with this. Ellie is extremely controlling and can be a real mean bitch, but I don't think that Andy is quite the puppy that you portray him as. There have been entire plotlines dedicated to Andy's mastery at manipulating Ellie through more subtle means (I remember he spent an episode giving Travis a tutorial on this). It's also been implied that he's much more dominating at work than at home. I've always seen Andy as a character who tolerates his wife's shortcomings because he loves her, and knows that when it matters he's really the one who's in control.

    Maybe it's not the healthiest relationship on television, but it's a better match than you claim here.

  • Three_nineteen

    Exactly.

    1) Andy is goofy, yes, but not dumb - he is a very successful financial analyst. He has not ever been portrayed as stupid. He has had multiple episodes where he is shown to be smart and to be manipulating his friends - as much as anyone else on the show. For example, the whole manipulation of Jules to get her to dance with him in Season 2.

    2) This dynamic has been there the entire show. It hasn't "turned" suddenly once the show hit TBS - it's been there the entire time. Remember when Ellie would only let Andy ride his motorcycle in the cul de sac under supervision? Season 1.

    3) Andy likes his situation. He doesn't think he's in a destructive marriage, like Al in Married With Children complains about all the time. He's like the husband in The Neighbors played by the mugger from Flight of the Choncords who said "I like it when you tell me what to do!" Some guys like being "henpecked" by their wives. There are lots of different kinds of relationships, and this is one of them. It may not be the one you have or want, but different people have different opinions. I know people in my life who have relationships I definitely don't ever want to have, but it seems to work for them, so I don't interfere.

  • pockets full of stones

    Agreed 100% and also wondering what's going on with all this preciousness in the thread. There's no abuse in this relationship; are we watching the same couple? She's playful in her meanness as he is in his meekness, that's their dynamic. Works for her because she needs to release her domineering nature and she's secretly but obviously grateful and loyal to him for it. On the other hand, her bitchiness turns him on so there's a good enough reason for him to never leave--and,oh my god, why should he?!--plus, he's aggressive and bossy at work with all the yes people that surround him so he's thankful that she's always honest with him and double thankful for her absolute loyalty. And whenever he needs things his way, he becomes a master manipulator, Keyser Soze style, and who can feel sorry for Keyser Soze?
    I'm ironically now feeling extra sensitive about this because I've just watched this latest origins-episode and I found it the best one to date. As warm and comfy as Raising Hope and Parks & Rec in their warmest and comfiest. Courteney Cox, bless her weird looking face, acted and directed the hell out of it. I had my objections at the beginning of the season, not because of the abusive relationships, please!, but for the lack of humor. It seems they're getting their groove back now. But I'm obviously alone in this sentiment. What a lonely thread I'm stuck in, nobody to play Penny Can with.

  • Slim

    As much as this bothers me (because I want Andy to break free and find someone who appreciates him!), I am much more disturbed by the marriage between the female leads in this show and plastic surgery. It is so distractingly obvious, to the point it's hard to pay attention to the story instead of examining Courteney and Christa's faces, looking for some semblance of their former selves. Even Busy has been tweaked, it appears. Why?

  • arito

    Also this. I watched half of the first episode of the new series and the overdose of plastic surgery was too much for me.

  • This.

    I only watched part of this episode and the conversation between the once lovely Courtney and Christa was obscene. Courtney's been doing this for years - her face hasn't moved since she was dating Drew Carey. But Courtney was once my idol and a smart funny woman who was in her 40's and looked AMAZING. Now they both look so garish and unnatural that it's made Cougar Town literally unwatchable.

  • Lemon_Poundcake

    "Think about it. Name one modern sitcom marriage in which the husband has the control in the relationship?"
    I think I'm gonna go with Leslie and Ben in Parks and Rec on this one. Not that Ben would have the control, per se, but that they would certainly be equals. Just another reason to love P&R.

  • zz1986

    Jay and Gloria on Modern family and to a certain extent Phil and Claire. Claire is a very type A personality but Phil balances her out very well. And as mentioned with other couples he have seen him assert himself when she really needs to hear something and she does listen.

  • Yep, I was just gonna comment with "And that's why Ben and Leslie are the best couple on TV right now."

    They're equals and they deeply respect and admire each other. It's so incredibly rare to see that on TV.

  • Long_Pig_Tailor

    I'd list Marshall and Lily from HIMYM on there, too. At first glance you might think Lily's basically running things, and Marshall's certainly not ever in charge, but when he decides to really say something, she always listens to it.

  • Rebecca Hachmyer

    You LITrally took the words right out of my mouth.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Boyd and Ava on Justified - they may not be married, but they're at least equals, and if not then I'd say Boyd wields slightly more control.

  • Semilitterate

    I'll agree that Boyd has the upper hand, I don't think "Justified can in any ay manner or means be classified as at sitcom, which the article as putatively about.

  • Bert_McGurt

    Apparently I need to either steal your name or find some excuse that absolves me of idiocy. If I could manage the latter I'd have done it long ago for much better reasons, so I'll go with the semi-literacy.

  • SnowMan

    I agree with you, especially regarding the loss of balance between sweet and bitter humor on the show this season. I've never been a fan of sitcom humor based around bickering characters who don't seem to really love-- or at least respect-- each other. Even more so when all that bickering is based around some lazy Men/Women Mars/Venus crap. I much prefer to watch characters who care about each other get up to all sorts of crazy hijinks. Bottom line, I simply enjoy humor based on positivity more than humor based on negativity.
    That being said, I'm not quite ready to give up on Cougar Town yet. Last night's episode showed a few hints of sweetness and good-natured humor that seemed to indicate (hopefully) that the writers are pulling things back toward the positive end of the continuum.

  • NateMan

    I've never seen any of this show, but I've loved Christa Miller for years. Glad she's still working, even if I'm not a big fan of the way this relationship sounds on the show.

  • So true! Ellie and Andy's relationship has been making me increasingly uncomfortable as well. And, while I may be bothered by it, something else has made me even more uncomfortable:

    Remember a couple of weeks ago when Bobby was pretending to be someone else, attending AA meetings, and getting up to a host of other shenanigans? There was one scene where his new sponsor comes to visit him and is horrified by his living conditions. She even offers to get him a hotel room until he is back on his feet. At which point he reaches over, grabs a beer, pops the top, takes a drink and confesses he's just been messing around with one of Bobby Cobb's trademark chuckles and an "I'm not an alcoholic."

    I'm sorry, WHAT was that? Besides being incredibly disrespectful to someone who was only trying to help him, it really rubbed me the wrong way. I get that this is a group of friends who love to hang out and drink wine all day, and that they may or may not be aware of their problem, but I have to say that interaction felt like a dismissive slap in the face. These people are alcoholics but I had a much easier time finding their adventures amusing before this, when it wasn't even acknowledged by the show that there are such problems.

    It could just be that I'm overly sensitized about this since way too many people in my family are emotionally and verbally abusive alcoholics (not my parents, thank God). I acknowledge that. However, to me it really felt like they were trying to make AA the butt of a joke and belittle the people who have found help through those means.

    I think I may be breaking up with Cougar Town.

  • Guest

    I do see your point but that's not alcoholism. They can't deal with alcoholism on Cougar Town without destroying the show. It's so far from the tone required to get close to the issue.

    Let me know when someone loose their families, their jobs or when Big Joe takes someone to the hospital. Until then please don't call them alcoholics. They just like to drink a lot.. there is a huge difference.

  • competitivenonfiction

    That scene didn't sit well with me either. Friends and How I Met Your Mother also dealt with alcoholism pretty poorly (though in the case of Fun Bobby on Friends, it was also a funny idea). I'm not sure that its possible to introduce in a sitcom without becoming insensitive or after school special-ish.

  • Bill Lawrence is married to Christa Miller, which may play into all of this. Maybe Andy is a metaphor/substitute for their previous network and how CT was bounced around. Not an excuse for fictional spousal abuse, but possibly a factor.

  • InternetMagpie

    Yeah, the last episode of season 3 made me uncomfortable with how much Ellie was slobbering over David Arquette. She's gotten too mean and dismissive of Andy - there's no balance anymore.

    I'm wondering, if the show does get renewed, if they'd actually separate them. It'd be an interesting direction, especially if they work on their marriage and Ellie tries to become less mean. They explored it a little when Turk and Carla went to counseling on Scrubs. It could make for some fun adventures.

  • Bert_McGurt

    It sort of makes me wonder whether Lawrence and Miller's own marriage has a similar dynamic.

  • Marsupial

    Their back and forth on Twitter is very amusing!

  • DominaNefret

    I thought you were going to be talking about Jordan and Dr. Cox, which is my favorite sitcom marriage. I have never seen Cougar Town.

  • pajiba

    Imagine Jordan being married to a puppy. That's their "Cougar Town" marriage.

  • DominaNefret

    Ooftah.

  • Ambergold7

    Thank you. Brilliant review that touches on something that really disturbs me not just about Cougar Town (much as I've loved it in the past), but sitcoms in general - the balance of power and humor is always, always, against the men. Sexism takes many forms and faces and is much more often and universally tilted against women - but one thing it never is and that is funny.

  • HerGuyWednesday

    Agreed.

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