Sitcom Television's Most Warped and Unsettling Marriage
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.
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).
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.