Aaron Sorkin is fond of having his characters quote The Lion in Winter when talking about facing struggles with honor. Both “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” had emotional turning points that referenced the moment in that movie that sees King Henry’s sons locked in the dungeon. Thinking Henry is approaching, Prince Richard says he won’t beg for his life and give his father the satisfaction of seeing him cower. Prince Geoffrey calls him a fool, saying, “As if the way one fell down mattered.” Richard responds with pride, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.” The quote had special significance coming from the mouth of someone on “Sports Night,” a show that earned critical plaudits but precious few viewers, and was cancelled after two seasons. It’s not always about the fight; it’s about how you hold your head up when the time comes.
I thought about those things a lot — passion, pride, devotion, and cult TV — over the weekend when I went to Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse for a special presentation of three new episodes from the upcoming season of ABC’s “Cougar Town.” A couple hundred fans gathered at the South Lamar location for a glimpse at the long-awaited return of one of the most endearing and enjoyable comedies on TV, and we were also treated to a brief Q&A with executive producer Kevin Biegel (who co-created with “Scrubs” and “Spin City” creator Bill Lawrence), writer Blake McCormick, and stars Ian Gomez and Dan Byrd. The event was the final stop on what the gang called the “‘Cougar Town’ U.S. Tour 2012,” which also held fan screenings in Los Angeles, Sarasota, and a few other cities. The show’s been fighting battles on a number of fronts since it premiered, and the third season comes after multiple scheduling delays and non-committal comments from ABC about the series’ chances for survival. Yet there we all were, rowdy and happy as could be, because Biegel and the rest aren’t about to give in or go out quietly. The event was a way for them to say, Yes, we’ve got a job ahead of us, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.
I admit I came late to the “Cougar Town” party for the same reason everyone else did (and the same reason any non-fans reading this still haven’t checked out the show): the title and initial concept of the show just didn’t seem like something I’d enjoy. I watched the pilot when it aired in the fall of 2009, and I might have even seen another episode or two after that, but despite liking some of the jokes, I wasn’t initially won over by a show about a newly divorced woman in her 40s getting into wacky sexcapades with men half her age. The title’s something that Biegel addressed when talking to the crowd, saying that he and others had generated it in the writing room when he worked on “Scrubs” and they all tried to think of the lamest idea possible for a sitcom. (They’d joked that episode transitions would feature cougar growls and animated claw slashes to cut to new scenes.) And yes, at first, the show was largely about the way Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox), freshly single and with a son entering his final year of high school, decided to get back into the dating scene. Yet the show grew that first year into a romantic ensemble comedy that placed a greater emphasis on the recurring characters than their weekly conquests, and by the end of the first season it had become a strong sitcom that built itself around a real emotional core. The gang on the show became a family to each other, the one place they could always turn when the world got out of hand, and the show’s focus changed accordingly.
Its second season was even stronger, yet it suffered from lower ratings and an unfortunate hiatus as ABC tried out new ideas and brought back the latest season of “Dancing With the Stars.” “Cougar Town” was actually off the air between its February 2 and April 18 episodes in spring 2011, one of the many real-life struggles alluded to in the show’s title cards that year. (Though most of them are jokes about the name itself, the February 2 show’s card said “See You Soon” and “Stay in Touch,” while the April return said, “We’re Back! Hi Dance Fans, Please Still Be There….”) The season was faster and funnier than the first one, more willing to be silly and loose yet also more dedicated to always coming back to the fact that these people really like each other. What makes “Cougar Town” different from workplace sitcoms is that these characters do not have to hang out together; they are not forced to be each other for a larger economic goal. Rather, they choose to spend time together. They’re a self-created, self-sustaining family unit. I was so, so glad when a friend of mine finally pressed the DVDs into my hand and encouraged me to give the show a shot. I fell in love quickly and easily, burning through two seasons in a month or so (and subsequently buying my own copies of the DVDs). Hell, even the cover art for the discs reflects the change in scope, going from Cox in a slogan-branded top the first year to a shot of the group hanging out the next.
The episodes we saw Saturday night were hilarious and warm, proof that the cast and crew are really in a groove and know what they want the show to be. They screened the season opener along with episodes four and five, and I won’t get into too many details here except to say the third season continues to reinforce the relationships and friendships that have defined the arcs so far. (There’s also an extended version of the “Jules Cobb Morning Routine Song” that’s amazing.) The upcoming season is shorter than the first two, just 15 episodes, and Biegel said that they’re going to “put a stamp” on the low-level flirtation between Travis and Laurie by the end of the season. Also on deck: Travis will wear a helmet for seven episodes because the writers were tired of the way he refused to get a haircut. That’s just awesome. Additionally, Bobby will finally get a decent love interest this season with a guest stint from Sarah Chalke as Travis’ photography teacher. The season’s fifth episode features some particularly wonderful comedic and emotional moments between them. I won’t spoil anything, but know this: Ted’s band is back together.
Yes, the title of the show is still laughable, a relic from a time when the story was going to be something so much different and smaller and less relatable. Yet the title’s also a perverse point of pride now for Biegel and the rest, and having gone through the journey of doubt and acceptance, I feel the same. Yes, it’s called “Cougar Town”; no, it’s not about what you think. It’s so much more than that. It’s funny and weird and sweet, and it’s ultimately about people who unironically love each other. I can’t encourage you strongly enough to check out the show if you haven’t yet. Check out some recent episodes on Hulu (if you’ve got Hulu Plus, jump in with last season’s “Lost Children” to get a taste of the ensemble at their peak), then go back and run through it from the beginning. You won’t regret it.
The Drafthouse event was a chance to get fans pumped for the new season, but it was also a way for Biegel and company to get the word out through their last best shot at grassroots marketing. “I can’t reach everybody,” he said to the crowd. “You guys can.” There’s a lot riding on the first few episodes, too. The ratings have declined from 3s and high 2s in the early part of the first season to low- to mid-2s at the close of the second. Biegel told me that the show needs to stay above a 2 rating (the higher the better, obviously) if it wants to keep kicking. Lower than that and they’re in trouble. It’s possible they could get a boost from their lead-in, “Last Man Standing,” though the shows don’t have much in common, and it’s not certain if Tim Allen’s viewers will stick around for a show in its third season with a potentially off-putting title. Still, one can hope. The show certainly deserves a long life and much success. They’re not ready to fall yet, and I’ll be with them every step of the way.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.