One Thing I Love Today: 'Cougar Town' deserves your attention
An old column returns and kicks off with a look at the underdog ABC comedy
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I got a truly lovely e-mail from a reader recently, in response to the "To Kill A Mockingbird" piece I posted last week, and one thing it did was remind me that one of the best columns I ever started only to tank later was "One Thing I Love Today," a minimalist's version of The Morning Read. And, yes, as someone pointed out on my James Bond article this morning, I have a terrific track record of starting things I never finish. My problem isn't that I'm lazy… it's the opposite. I try to do too many things, and that ends up biting me in the ass more often than not. So I've been thinking about how to handle The Morning Read, which many of you have requested, and which won't be coming back.
I've got to confess that as much as I liked The Morning Read, it wasn't a traffic generator, and to do it well, it takes more time than the readership ever justified. It sent a lot of traffic out, but it didn't always result in a lot of traffic for us. And while it may sound craven to talk about traffic and page views and the like, I work in a digital media where readership is quantified, absolutely.
It's not true so much of television, which is why the ratings game always disturbs me. I was a Nielsen family for a year, and it was in the early days of not having to fill out the book anymore because they could measure your cable box directly. I was part of that random sampling that determined what was a hit and what was not. And during that year, I watched a ton of TV live while it was airing. I was a good Nielsen family. I thought about it, and I voted with my TV time. And at the end of the year, they took that box back and I got my regular cable box again and that was that. And thinking about the way it works, I can't really accept that we still depend on something as insanely unfair as the Nielsen ratings system to determine what stays on the air and what doesn't.
It doesn't make sense to me. And I'm not the TV guy here. We have the amazing Alan Sepinwall and the also-amazing Dan Fienberg, both of them voracious consumers of TV culture, reviewers who put my own output to shame. They both would have a lot to say about ratings and the system, I'm sure, and I have no idea how my views line up with theirs.
I think it's crazy. Just nuts. Makes no sense at all to me that we live in an age where we can most likely record very specific viewership information, down to the second, and where that information could tell us so much more about the real viewing habits of people. You'd have to factor in DVR use, though, and if possible, you'd want to also include numbers for people who watch something in some other format, like DVD or iTunes or Blu-ray or Netflix or Hulu. And if you did all those numbers and made a real record of what was being watched and seen and consumed, I would imagine our media landscape would look totally different than it does right now.
Watching from the sidelines as ABC tried to figure out what to do with "Cougar Town" this year has been excruciating. One of my oldest friends in LA (in terms of length of our friendship, not his actual age) is Kevin Biegel. He and I met when we were both spies for Ain't It Cool News, and I still remember when he moved to Los Angeles and was churning out his first screenplays, working on his voice. Right away, it was apparent that Kevin had his own approach to comedy, a style that wasn't just poached from whatever was hot that week. He's a character guy, and he loves to drill down into whatever situation he's writing about, laying bare the very human frailties that drive his characters.
Watching him work on shows like "Scrubs" or "South Park" was exciting, but those shows already had their own voices, and in TV, part of the job is bending your voice to what exists as the framework of a particular TV show. I've always enjoyed seeing Kevin's name appear on those shows, but I also knew it was just a matter of time until it was his show, his voice, and his sensibility.
And that's "Cougar Town." Co-created with Bill Lawrence, his "Scrubs" producer, the show took most of its first season to really settle on what it was, but once it did, it became this enormously appealing look at a group of friends living in a small Florida town not terribly unlike the towns where both Kevin and I lived in Florida. One of the reasons I think we're both huge Travis McGee fans is because of how dead-on-accurate McDonald's Florida is, and in his own way, Kevin is drawing his own portrait of the place where he grew up, and "Cougar Town" strikes me as a show that is very personal while never feeling exclusionary. The show's sentimental side has become more pronounced over time, and at this point, the mixture of brash, rowdy humor and unabashed heart makes it feel very different than a lot of what's on TV.
Last week's episode, the first of this season, set in motion what appears to be this year's big story arc, as Jules (Courteney Cox) and Grayson (Josh Hopkins) finally got engaged, and the way it's told is a pretty much perfect version of the show's best foot forward. They've got the absurdity of the greenscreen-in-a-dorm-room storyline and the unabashed heart of the proposal and the constant antagonism of Ellie (Christa Miller) and Laurie (Busy Philipps) played out through Stan's development as a devil baby. There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of different tones, and yet it all crystallizes in a way that is particular to this show.
Like "Community," I want to see this show survive because I feel like it's a very special blend of the sincere and the self-referential, but here's where I feel like they've hobbled both shows this year, making it harder for them and robbing them of one of the unique assets of what makes television different than film. When a TV series is cooking along and on the air and in production all at the same time, fandom plays a part in the way the show takes shape because they are reacting and giving feedback and engaged in an active relationship with the show. You don't get to do that on a film, and this year, because of the way the show was scheduled, "Cougar Town" produced its entire season before they got to air a single episode. That's a real shame, because the "Cougar Town" team has proven to be one of the most accessible crews on TV in social media terms, constantly engaging their fanbase and responding to them. "Community" is the same way, and maybe that's why the two shows have acknowledged each other on the air, and why they feel like they are in some odd way complementary.
"Cougar Town" airs again tonight, and I'd like to encourage you to check out the first episode for this season on Hulu and then stay tuned this year. If nothing else, you'll see a really polished team deliver one final great burst of episodes, and maybe if enough people watch, we'll actually get another year out of the series. It would be a shame to take a cast and crew that is working this well together and pull the plug on them prematurely, and it is possible to stop that from happening. It's a show worth saving, and a type of television worth encouraging.
So this is what you can expect now instead of The Morning Read. Some days this may be longer. Some days this must be shorter. But in a world where it's sometimes necessary to write a scathing salt-the-earth style pan of a film like I did with "Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance," I'd like to start each day by focusing on the positive, by sharing something that excites me, and by emphasizing why it is I've been writing about film and pop culture now for almost 15 years. If I can't find One Thing I Love Today each and every day, then I should probably quit this job. There are plenty of opportunities for disappointment, and we'll still be writing about all of that, but in the end, I do this to share with you the things that I think are worth sharing, and this column, which I hope will become the anchor of this blog, is all about celebrating that.
ONE THING I LOVE TODAY will appear here every day. Yep. Every day.
Everything: Cougar Town
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