THE BLOG
02/13/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

'Cougar Town' Returns With Its Wine-Drinking Wit Intact

A lot of people in the media and on your social media feeds might be begging you to watch "Cougar Town" (Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. EST on ABC).

And I am one of the people who thinks you should watch this sterling comedy when it finally returns, but I am well aware of the dangers of the word "should." I identify with people who instantly become wary when they are told they really, really should do something. Let's face it: The word can have an air of coercion about it. Nobody wants to eat their vegetables because they're told they should. Your average adult wants to choose to eat vegetables because they can be delicious (sorry, kids, you don't actually get to have input on this issue).

Speaking metaphorically or factually, no vegetables can be found on "Cougar Town" -- not surprisingly, given that the show's endearing gang of friends prefers grapes (the fermented variety, of course). Don't tune in thinking you'll be encouraged to cogitate about its higher purpose or search for a deep intellectual theme. This is not "The Wire" re-told as an optimistic half-hour comedy (that would be "Parks and Recreation," which you also should watch).

Of course, "Cougar Town" -- about how friends accept and love each other, despite their flaws -- is a smart show with a very healthy helping of substance, but viewers are perfectly free to ignore those aspects of the show and just cackle at this deftly-acted ensemble piece about an ad-hoc family that collectively drinks a lot of red wine.

One of the most impressive things about "Cougar Town" is how many jokes and silly moments it can fit into a scene while keeping the characters consistent and the enclosed world of the Cul De Sac Crew rooted in its own slightly skewed reality. Things can go off in goofy directions, but the center always holds, the emotional moments are always earned and nothing is too broad or wacky.

Each character is vivid and well-defined, and the intertwined relationships among Jules Cobb (Courteney Cox) and her friends take on more complexity every week, but the proceedings are saturated with such gleeful energy and such a daffy sense of momentum that you barely notice the satisfying heft of the show. Having honed this kind of stealth sweetness and clandestine depth on "Scrubs," co-creators Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence are very good at making what could seem vegetable-ish taste like dessert.

Lawrence and Biegel -- who have been promoting the show's long-overdue return with a creative series of fan-oriented parties and events -- often say the show is about adult friendship. Though that is true, one of the most enjoyable things about the wonderfully funny and charming new season is how much it unashamedly highlights romance. "Cougar Town" isn't doing that because it's returning on Valentine's Day (these episodes were shot months ago, when the return date wasn't known), but because that's really what the Cul De Sac chronicles are about -- not just falling in love, but the way people quietly choose to keep loving those they're closest to.

Unlike a lot of shows that unwisely draw out "will they or won't they" scenarios, "Cougar Town" is all about the "we definitely are" scenario. Central couple Jules and Grayson (the dryly versatile Josh Hopkins) got together long ago, and the advancement of their relationship has never been played for suspense. In fact, if you look at the spoilery (and hilarious) Season 3 promo reel that Lawrence and Biegel created to promote the show's return, you'll know exactly where this season is headed.

But that's fine, because "Cougar Town" isn't about finding friends or deciding whether to be with someone. Those searches were over long ago. This show is about deciding to stay true to friends or lovers, even when they flake out or annoy you; it's about finding strategies to deal with imperfections and problems. Every episode explores one of Jules' flaws or one of the ways in which her friends can be misguided, but there's nothing cruel about the excavation of the characters' mistakes. This is a show about tolerance and forgiveness; it's not a dissection of failure and regret.

The romantic and even idealistic ideas on display here involve celebrating what you already have, even if there are hitches along the way. That's an "awwww"-inducing idea that could be played for cloying sentiment, but "Cougar Town" avoids that trap, thanks to its sharp, clever writing and a very skilled cast that never tries to oversell anything. (That doesn't mean these actors can't nail it when they go for the emotional jugular. They all can, but Cox in particular is a ninja master when it comes to playing those heart-swelling moments.)

On top of all that, there's a savvy intelligence to "Cougar Town" that makes it refreshing. The show features a wacky neighbor (the very funny Bob Clendinen as Tom, the not-quite-member-of-the-gang), and one Season 3 episode features a medical crisis. But the good news is that "Cougar Town" often takes what could be TV cliches and puts its own cheerfully surreal stamp on them (one scene of bromantic bonding takes place in an inventively silly green-screen scenario).

If you've given "Cougar Town" a real shot and found that it's not for you, fair enough; if you already love the goofy-sweet-smart flavor of this show, you'll find a lot to like about the new season. But if you haven't watched the show up until this point, you're really missing out if you don't give it a try.

A song that Grayson sings to Jules in Tuesday's episode does very good job of representing what's so endearing about "Cougar Town": The tune makes it clear that he finds Jules' predictable habits kind of charming. She's threatened by the idea that her friends can always figure out what she'll say or do in a given situation, but "Cougar Town" doesn't mine that idea with the weary resignation or snarkiness that a more pedestrian sitcom would have used.

In its return, "Cougar Town" amusingly makes the point that knowing someone that well is a gift not to be taken lightly. As a whole, this series gently asserts that the most valuable luxury in the world is unlimited time in which to get to know friends and loved ones even better.

I'll drink to that.

Stay tuned for my colleague Crystal Bell's account of the New York "Cougar Town" event, which will be posted Tuesday, and return here Wednesday for special post-premiere tidbits from Biegel and Lawrence.

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