Penny Can or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love A Show Titled “Cougar Town”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article first posted on May 25th 2011, right as the second season came to a close. I’m reposting it again now as the third season premieres tonight at 8:30pm on ABC after an almost eight month long hiatus. I attended the NYC Paley Center panel Bill Lawrence and crew held as part of their grassroots campaign and can safely say despite the time off the show contains to be one of the best comedies around. The first episode of the season is both hysterical and incredibly heartfelt, being a perfect example of what makes a Bill Lawrence show so great. If I get some free time in the next few days I’d love to do a piece on their unique marketing strategy, but for now I thought I’d repost my article on why I love Cougar Town and why you should be watching.

From May 25th 2011

So let’s get it out of the way: one of my favorite shows on TV is named “Cougar Town”.  Yes it’s a terrible title, but I assure you the name has nothing to do with the show itself.  The following acts as part review, part joyous rambling about a show I love and a showrunner I aspire to be like.

In fall of 2009 when Cougar Town first aired it was a fairly disappointing pilot.  As a massive Bill Lawrence fan (I’ve seen and loved all of Scrubs, Clone High, his one episode of both Boy Meets World and Friends, parts of Spin City, and even his fantastic unaired pilot Nobody’s Watching) I was saddened by the pilot’s end result and tuned out to the series, not paying much attention to the show as that year I already had too busy a schedule on my hands to add another series to my already high plate.  Around December I began reading TV criticism heavily and heard word (mostly from the wonderful Myles McNutt) that the show changed its course from the initial premise to become a quite enjoyable comedy.  I started watching the show in January after its holiday hiatus, and now with its second season coming to a close I can safely add Cougar Town to the list of fantastic Bill Lawrence shows.

The series originated when ABC asked Lawrence to create a show with Courtney Cox, whom you may remember guest starred on season eight of Scrubs as a test to see how the two worked together.  The story goes Lawrence was talking with his writing partner Kevin Biegel about how poor the development of television shows had become, being more focused on outrageous premises than actual quality.  He jokingly rattled off that today he could easily sell a network on a stupid idea like Courtney Cox chasing after younger men and call it “Cougar Town”, complete with cheesy animated cougar claws breaking through the scene before going into commercial break.  A few weeks later Lawrence decided to take a chance on just that, minus the claws bit thankfully.  A pilot was made and soon the series went into production, but Lawrence being the adept showrunner he is, quickly realized that the premise could only take the series so far.  Looking back he likes to claim the Thanksgiving themed ninth episode of the series as the turning point when they decided it would become more of an ensemble show about friendship in your forties and the much drinking of wine that comes with it.

Today the show has more in common with Scrubs in its heydays than the pilot it started off with.  The series has become if you took Scrubs, removed it from the hospital setting, placed it in a cul-de-sac, aged the characters up a few years, and gave them each a glass of wine.  And aside from the experimental Community and the charming Parks and Recreation, it’s the best comedy on TV.  While the show may have a few story arcs across the season (mainly who each character is dating), each episode is more about hanging out with close friends and having fun.

Lawrence shows have a tendency to create fun little games and pile up a mess of running gags like Scrubs’ Hide The Saltine or Finger Toe, and Cougar Town is no different.  The series has created all kinds of new memorable games from Movie Mashup, where you take two movie titles that can be meshed together and give a new plot that combines the two films (“Garfield of Dreams: A fat cartoon cat gets to play catch with his dead father”), or the cul-de-sac crew’s favorite, PENNY CAN!  And yes Penny Can is as simple as it sounds, with the only objective of the game being to get pennies into a can, but despite that it’s incredibly addicting and fun.  Though throughout the series the game actually becomes quite complex with new rules being added contently (rim shot equals their ear being flicked, a penny that goes into the can and then out means having a mustache drawn on your face, and a spinning penny equals a face sandwich till it stops) along with different variations being played (Truth or Penny Can, Moving Target Penny Can).

It’s interesting to note that the cul-de-sac crew also has a strange obsession with playing pretend.  Where Scrubs devoted a whole episode to air guitar, Cougar Town is a celebration of all things “air” played.  Take for example having a war with fake guns (an homage to Shaun of the Dead/Scott Pilgrim director Edgar Wright’s amazing series Spaced) or becoming imaginary blood brothers.  It’s as if the characters themselves know they’re in a fairly low stakes TV series and as such they play act to make their lives seem as if the stakes were higher.

Sadly the stakes of the show aren’t the only thing that’s low, as the series is fairly low rated, despite being critically well received.  ABC has scaled back much of the show’s promotion and as such Bill Lawrence and the rest of the crew have decided to take a different approach to selling the series: social media.  After a long hiatus when the failed Matthew Perry series Mr. Sunshine borrowed it’s time slot, the first episode of Cougar Town that aired included the characters saying a phone number that if called in the real world fans could talk with the actors and writers behind the series.  If one called the phone number and made it through the connection they’d be able to talk to an actor or writer who would answer any questions, and then on top of that many of them even gave out free Bobby Cobb Official Competition Penny Can Cans (a prop prominently featured in the episode).  The phones ended up ringing nonstop, with the stunt becoming a huge success.

I myself was able to reach Bill Lawrence, as the last caller of the first night the line was open.  It was a memory I’d never forget, as Lawrence was friendly, kind, and simply appreciative that I watched his show.  We talked for seven minutes about TV, working in the industry, and more.  It was a nothing short of a pleasure, securing forever my love and admiration for Lawrence as a writer and creator, but most of all the phone call made it feel as if Cougar Town was more than a show. It made it seem that Cougar Town was an experience to be had.  Watching the show became like being in an exclusive club with its own set of rituals and games. The show’s social media interaction goes further as during the hiatus Lawrence and Biegel took to Twitter after writing on the show’s title card for viewers to follow them online and tweet at them any questions they had.  And most recently a character in the show started tweeting visibly in episodes and her real world Twitter account (@TheLarmy) is updated live as the east coast episode airs. With all this social media and fan interaction Cougar Town has evolved from a show into a communal experience.

Sitcoms have reached a recent high with so many fantastic comedies on air, but Cougar Town stands out as one of the brightest in the pack.  It’s quirky and frequently quite weird, admittedly it’s not a show not for everyone, but it’s well worth giving it a shot.  Perhaps while enjoying a nice glass of wine, just as the cul-de-sac crew would want.

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One thought on “Penny Can or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love A Show Titled “Cougar Town”

  1. Great Write-up. The show truly has come a long way. I myself was turned off simply due to the title and original premise, but began watching a few weeks ago around the time of the Penny Can Number promotion, and have since seen almost all of season two (Thanks to the Hulu Plus free Trials). I love the silly games and imaginary recreations of gun fights and such. I’m looking forward to tonight’s one hour season finale, and what memorable game they will come up with either tonight or next season!

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