Watching the pilot for "Cougar Town" multiple times in multiple incarnations hasn't helped. I still laugh a couple times and smile at a few more jokes, but I'm no closer to knowing how I feel about the series as a whole.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the creators of "Cougar Town," Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel have admitted that they weren't completely sure what the series was initially. And it shows.

I like Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel. I like "Cougar Town" star Courteney Cox. I like supporting players like Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Ian Gomez and Brian Van Holt. As many DOA shows (some of them quite awful) as Josh Hopkins has starred in, I've even grown to like him over the years. And I think Dan Byrd is a major talent even if, at fresh-faced 23, there's a real chance he could be stuck playing high school kids until he's 50.

So "Cougar Town," which premieres on ABC on Wednesday (Sept. 23) night is a show that I don't dislike, but it's also a show that I want to like more.

And if my repetition of the word "like" isn't enough of a reflection of my warm-spirited ambivalence, I don't know what is. 

[More musing on "Cougar Town" after the break...]

After 20 years of marriage to a directionless aspiring golfer (Van Holt), Florida realtor Jules (Cox) has seemingly given up on the idea that she can ever have fun again. This complacency is OK with her best bud and neighbor Ellie (Miller), in a comfortable but uninspired marriage to Andy (Gomez), but brassy co-worker Laurie (Philipps) wants her back on the prowl again, much to the chagrin of her teenage son Travis (Byrd).

Reentering the dating world comes so easily for Grayson (Hopkins), the newly divorced guy across the street, who seems to bring home a different bimbo every night. 

Things are different for women, though.

I know this because, in a slightly cumbersome and thematically explicit rant, Jules tells us all, "Do you know how scary it is to be a single, 40-year-old woman? Whatever you do, you feel judged by the world. You feel judged by yourself. If you ever deep down think that you might get married again, you're not going to. Not when you're 50 and you can't make babies anymore and your looks have faded. So you put on a brave face and you try really hard not to think about the fact that maybe, maybe this is all your life is ever going to be."

If that speech represented the actual outlook of the show, "Cougar Town" would be a depressing 30 minutes. With Laurie's help, though, Jules comes to wonder if maybe she can play by Grayson's rules and maybe the key to her rejuvenation is in finding a boy toy of her own.

As with CBS' dismal, but already seemingly successful, "Accidentally on Purpose," "Cougar Town" attempts to find mirth in having its heroine describe all of the ways in which having sex with a younger man has instantly heightened her senses and given new purpose to her life. Unlike "Accidentally on Purpose," "Cougar Town" is capable of being funny.

"Cougar Town" begins with a montage of Cox's character exploring her physical imperfections. Although Lawrence has insisted that the body parts all belong to the "Friends" veteran, they're shot in disassociated close-ups so they could just as easily belong to a body double. It's not like Cox has all that much to be insecure about and by "all that much," I mean "anything." She's a great-looking woman for 25, 35 or 40. Jules' only real deficiency is a lack of a brain-to-mouth filter, as if being a woman who speaks her mind might be even worse than being 40.

Maybe part of what "Cougar Town" wants to say is that the insecurities that women of her age project upon themselves are entirely a product of popular culture and social mores and that they're a hurdle that can be overcome just by finding a way to put yourself out there and believe you're worthy of happiness. If that's the case, the show doesn't just need to be about a hot 40-year-old woman who beds young Lotharios and the show can grow from there? Jules can sometimes date men her own age and sometimes younger men and sometimes even older men, because her self-worth isn't tied to sucking the life from kids. And in that wide-open series, Jules has a natural tension both between her two very different friends, but also with the her ex-husband, her son and Grayson, who will become a love interest at some point.

But then, if it becomes the series I just described, "Cougar Town" is stuck with a title that would be both bad and irrelevant, as well as right-on-the-edge-of-passe as far as terminology goes.

After going from brightly comic on "Friends" to darkly comic on FX's "Dirt," Cox is back in sunny mode here, even if there's a shrill neediness that's built into the character. She has one or two "dial-it-back" moments, but mostly "Cougar Town" is a reminder that she's a gifted comedienne. She and Philipps make a good pairing and I'm looking forward to more scenes with the three main women. 

On the male side of things, I hope the writers don't become over-invested in the beefcake factor with Van Holt and Hopkins, forgetting about Byrd, whose utter mortification at his mother's behavior yields the highest laugher-to-line ratio in the cast.

Already "Cougar Town" has undergone some tinkering from the original version of the pilot, trying to work on the tone and trying to get the characterizations right. The pilot veers between slapstick (slightly reduced), bedroom farce and male-generated feminist polemic. I'm curious where the show will be in Episode Two, because I know that Lawrence and Biegel and company are capable of steering it in the right direction.

 

"Cougar Town" premieres at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23 on ABC.