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TV Tonight: Cougar Town

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Tonight ABC debuts Cougar Town, a comedy based on the media trend of older women hooking up with younger men. Building a show around the concept of “cougars” is a bold, farsighted move that guarantees the show will remain timely and relevant for years. I hereby predict that Cougar Town will have the staying power of such still-on-the-air hits as NBC’s Metrosexual City, the Christian Slater thriller My Own Worst Frenemy and, of course, Biff Masters: Yuppie P.I., currently in his 20th season of solving crime and grinding espresso beans on CBS.

Other critics have already remarked on one problem with Cougar Town: (1) it wants to comment on the pressures on women in a society that idealizes impossible bodies and eternally-preserved youth, while (2) it stars Courteney Cox.In the opening scene, she stands in front of the mirror and probes the few square inches of loose flesh she can find on her body, which is meant to show that her character is flabby. Well, that’s TV. Cox is a brunette, so in TV-visuals that makes her a stand-in for ordinary women. Her dark hair is a metaphor for her viewers’ muffin tops, I guess.

Unreality, I can take. My major problem with the pilot of Cougar Town is that it’s only rarely funny and more often flat-out icky. Cox stars as Jules, a divorced real-estate agent with a coworker-buddy-figure (Busy Phillips) urging her to get out on the market and “have fun.” Whereas insecure Jules’ idea of fun is to stay home with a glass of wine trading a string of seriously boundary-crossing sex jokes with her teenage son. (Only one, fortunately, involves incest. And it’s not the one concerning his penis.)

Meanwhile, she’s surrounded by 40-year-old men dating age-inappropriate chicks. Naturally, the forces of meddling friendship, circumstance and sitcom logic dictate that she will meet a younger guy and fulfill the sitcom’s title. And that’s the problem: not the relationship, but the fact that Cougar Town is so relentlessly driven not by its characters but by its concept. There seem to be no people in the show, so much as pitch-meeting ideas brought to life. Even Jules, the central figure, changes traits from scene to scene depending on what the joke needs. We learn in the first scene that she’s insecure about her body. So naturally, five minutes in, she proves a point to her divorced-male neighbor by opening her robe and flashing a teenager on his bike.

CBS’s Accidentally on Purpose, which debuted Monday and is also about older-gal-younger-dude dynamics, is pretty cardboard and predictable, but at least it has the conviction of its high concept. Cougar Town, with its adult themes and speeches about What It’s Like Out There For Women, seems to think it’s a much more developed and depthful comedy than it is.

Cougar Town does have potential, if it can get past its pilot-itis and establish Jules and company as credible people. It comes from Scrubs’ Bill Lawrence, and some of its jokes have flashes of the same goofy, arrested-development (lowercase)  humor. (Jules tells her neighbor that middle-aged women get judged for sleeping around, while middle-aged men tell each other, “Way to go, Tiger!” His answer: “We don’t call each other, ‘Tiger.’ It’s always ‘Champ’ or ‘Samurai.'”) But it doesn’t have nearly the range or distinction of characters that Scrubs—for all its wackiness and fantasy sequences—did early on. If Cougar Town doesn’t find a way to become about people rather than just about a trend, it’s going to start showing its age very soon.