"Cougar Town" finally returns to ABC tonight at 8:30. As I wrote about yesterday, the show has come a long way from its early days when its horrible title could be taken fairly literally. It's now a goofy, sweet, quirky, fun and at times incredibly romantic comedy about friends and family.
 
Tonight's premiere leans heavy on both the goof and the romance, which is either brilliant or horrible timing given that it's Valentine's Day. In terms of timing, though, the larger problem may be that the show has been off the air for almost nine months, which means all but the most passionate fans — or people who didn't delete their DVR season pass(*) — may have forgotten it existed by now.
 
(*) As mentioned in last week's story, those season passes are the reason the show won't abandon the terrible title, because an old show with a new title would be treated as a new show by DVRs, and it wouldn't record for anyone who didn't know to update things.  
 
ABC left the Courteney Cox comedy off its fall schedule, then bumped it from a planned mid-season debut a couple of months ago, which is tough sledding for a show that will be airing for the first time without the security of "Modern Family" as its lead-in. To keep the fans engaged during the long time off — and to keep the actors and writers from feeling too disconnected from their audience — the show's creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel mounted a multi-level guerrilla marketing campaign, that included cameos by most of the cast in the background of other shows and a series of screenings of season 3 episodes in cities around the country. (I talked with both Lawrence and Biegel about the campaign at press tour.)
 
One of those screenings was in Chicago, where co-star Busy Philipps and writer Melody Derloshon represented the series. Last month, before ABC announced the show's premiere date, I spoke with Philipps about the screening, making these episodes in a vacuum, and the show's optimistic approach to her dim-witted character, Laurie.
 
What was Chicago like?
 
Busy Philipps:          It was epic. It was really epic. I got wasted. I gave an interview wasted with lots of expletives. I called Bill Lawrence a bleeping rock star, which he is. The fans were amazing. We had a really good time there with Melody and we just had a blast and it was so fun to get to watch the show in a crowd of people who are so excited for it to come back and couldn’t wait to see them. It was great.
 
What has it been like making the show in a vacuum this year?
 
Busy Philipps:          That’s what I've been describing it as. You’re funny. I mean it’s true. It is what it is, but it has been hard. It’s a little difficult. I was saying to my sister over Christmas I bought Kevin Biegel this vintage Danish wine glass that came on a lanyard that hangs around your neck and I was like, “Leigh Ann, you know the episode of 'Cougar Town' when we’re all wearing the necklaces?” And my sister said, “What are you talking about?” “Did you know from last season when we all had the necklaces with the wine?” “What?” No, she had obviously no point of reference for that.  So it was a little bit of a bummer and I have no point of reference, but people haven’t seen it.
 
I've seen that one, though. I’ve seen the first five (episodes).
 
Busy Philipps:          Do you like this season?
 
Yes, it was very romantic this season.
 
Busy Philipps:          I know. It is.
 
So I'm a sucker for that stuff. I shouldn’t be, but I am.
 
Busy Philipps:          I love it too. I love the heart. I think it’s what makes comedy great.
 
Well actually I want to talk about that because Laurie is an interesting character, where it would be so easy to just be like-
 
Busy Philipps:          A dumb slut.
 
Yeah, exactly and the show loves her for it. I think about that episode where she does The Walk of Awesome.
 
Busy Philipps:          I love The Walk of Awesome. I pitched my idea (of) "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" opening — throwing a shoe above her head. I don’t know if it’s still in, but I love it. I love the heart that they have been able to give to her since the first season and she’s a loveable character much like Bobby. Sometimes I do question it though. I’m like, "Is this too far? Is she too much of an idiot?" I don’t know.
 
You bring up Bobby, and I know that's not where the story's likely to go — there's always been the Laurie/Travis stuff — but there are times where it seems these two really do seem weirdly made for each other.
 
Busy Philipps:          I know, Bobby and Laurie. I think that’s what’s interesting in it, although the girls you know. Historically speaking, women always go for smarter guys, especially pretty girls. That’s the evolution.
 
Sure. That’s been my experience.
 
Busy Philipps:          Ask my husband. I married the smartest guy who would have me.
 
I wonder, though, how you compare this to "Freaks and Geeks." You were much younger at the time and much newer in the business, but when you were doing "Freak and Geeks" and NBC was taking it off the schedule and moving it around and you’re making this show that the network isn’t really happy with. 
 
Busy Philipps:          Well it’s so strange. This is far more confusing than that was. You know at the time of "Freak and Geeks" I remember being on every critic’s best of list. I remember TV Guide saying, "You must watch this show," but to be honest with you, part of it was the Saturday night timeslot that we initially had, but people didn’t watch it. Although I'm sure if you go back the numbers were way higher than any show on the air right now because it’s just different for some reason. Why is it different? Do you know? TV is your business.
 
There are just so many more channels and so many more options, so everything is low. You would be one of NBC’s biggest hits right now with those numbers.
 
Busy Philipps:          Right, of course. And, by the way, everyone that I've ever run into who claims that they worked at NBC at the time claims that they fought for the show. I'm just like, "All right, I get it." Everyone made a mistake collectively, but if everyone had fought for it, it might still be on the air, but then we might not have "Knocked Up" and "Bridesmaids" and "40 Year-old Virgin."
 
Jason Segel might not have brought the Muppets back into our lives.
 
Busy Philipps:          Exactly, and my daughter would be disappointed. We took Birdie to the premier because Jason and I are still in touch, and I think he had a real surreal moment because he hadn’t met her. We go out to dinner with him as grownups, my husband and I, but he hadn’t really met my kid, and to bring her to the premier of "The Muppets" just felt so like weirdly full circle.
 
But "Freak and Geeks" just felt like a wholly different thing.  We just kind of knew almost immediately that it was a tough sell, that we didn’t have the numbers that people wanted us to have. They took us off the air for baseball. They didn’t order the back nine. They ordered the back one and then they ordered five scripts and then they picked up six episodes. So it was like the writing was on the wall. 
 
This is our third season of "Cougar Town." It felt like at the end of last year we had so much momentum going. All you guys have been so great to us. People were writing wonderful things about the finale. I won that Critics Choice Award, which was very exciting for me and then we find out that we’re not on the schedule. It all ground to a halt and, as I've said before, I'm a television fan myself. I TiVo it. I watch it a lot and I'm excited for one of my favorite shows to get back on the air, so I can watch it.
 
Having done the screening do you feel like more connected? Did that help fill a little hole that’s been missing when people haven’t been seeing it?
 
Busy Philipps:          Well I never watched "Cougar Town" with a group of rabid Midwestern fans before, so that filled some hole, but it was like that scene in "Soap Dish." I keep referencing it and people are like, “What is 'Soap Dish'?” You know that movie.
 
Yeah, Kevin Kline, Sally Field.
 
Busy Philipps:          Where Whoopi Goldberg takes Sally Field to the mall.
 
Yes.
 
Busy Philipps:          So she can kiss babies and feel like a movie star. That is a little bit  what I felt like. It was my mall moment. I just think it would be great for the show to get back on the air.
 
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com