As anyone who cares about COUGAR TOWN knows, just a few weeks ago the series was basically being strapped into the electric chair with electrodes being attached to its forehead, and the chaplain reciting some scripture. Clearly, the show wasn’t coming back to ABC–that network had postponed its season premiere, cut its order, scheduled it with a horribly incompatible lead-in (the flat multicamera sitcom Last Man Standing), and in the final indignity, pushed its season finale to 10 days after the season’s end. At least two of the actors had joined the cast of new pilots, assuming they’d be free in the fall. But at the last second the phone rang, and the governor (in this case, cable network TBS) issued a reprieve: Cougar Town will live to drink wine immoderately again in 2013.
The one-hour season finale that aired tonight (really 2 consecutive episodes strung together) was very explicitly shot–as the show’s usual self-referential title card indicated–as though it could have been the end of the series. If it had been, it would have been a satisfying conclusion. Not much needs to be said about the first half-hour, credited to series co-creator Kevin Biegel and directed by John Putch. It was another chapter in the continuing struggle of Grayson, fiance of Jules (Courteney Cox), to come to terms with the fact that life with Jules inextricably means life with the cul de sac crew, meaning neighbors Andy and Ellie (Ian Gomez and Christa Miller), ex-husband Bobby (Brian Van Holt), son Travis (Dan Byrd) and younger buddy/colleague/protege Laurie (Busy Philipps) (as well as semi-official member Tom, played by Robert Clenendin). Grayson’s attempt to preserve some semblance of privacy, in his bedroom if not in his house, was, as it always will be, doomed to failure. The episode was notable mostly for a fun riff on Groundhog Day, a movie Jules had to come to understand (“Are they robots?” she asked about the townspeople on her 7th viewing), so, inevitably, it was reenacted for her… again and again and again.
The night’s second half-hour was the real finale, written by the show’s other co-creator and lead Executive Producer Bill Lawrence, and also directed by Putch. In it, Grayson asks Jules to elope instead of having the elaborate wedding they’d (she’d) planned, and although she agrees, naturally her idea of “elope” includes the whole gang. The place is the Napa Valley, where the wine consumption is so strong that it’s a religious experience for the group. Also joining in is Jules’s father Chick (Ken Jenkins), who is to officiate. Along with the wedding, there are other events brewing, including Travis’s 21st birthday, some heavy flirtation between him and Laurie, continuing a simmering plotline that’s been going for a while–and then the arrival of her long-distance soldier boyfriend Wade (Edwin Hodge), until now only seen on video screens. The show makes a path for Jules and Grayson to have her dream wedding, while ramping up the Laurie/Travis story considerably and finding a place for series Executive Producer (and, of course, Cox’s real-life ex) David Arquette to have a role at the Napa hotel.
No doubt Cougar Town can continue to merrily roll along in its new home, with Jules and Grayson a married couple and the other characters smoothly doing what they do. The question will be whether we’ll look back on that as a good thing (other than for the cast and crew’s livelihoods, of course). Cougar Town came to a fine, emotionally satisfying conclusion with this finale–will it now feel like it’s spinning its wheels? Bill Lawrence has already announced he’ll be stepping back from day-to-day showrunning next season–per his new studio deal–the track record for comedies changing networks is less than stellar, and TBS is a very different environment from ABC (Cougar Town will probably be a companion show for reruns of The Big Bang Theory, a big hit but not the same kind of comedy at all.)
On the other hand, this is a show that completely reinvented itself after it was ordered as a series, becoming so different from the show it was originally planned to be that the meaninglessness of its title has become part of the show’s in-joke legend. Lawrence has made it clear that he’ll still be involved (which is more than poor Dan Harmon can say about Community)–if for no other reason than that his wife is Christa Miller–and Cougar Town still has its extremely strong cast and an adaptable, loose framework that can allow for the goofiest of borderline surreal gags and some sincere emotion as well. Betting against Cougar Town has proved to be a bad investment, and the hope here is that it continues to be so.