'Cougar Town' review: She works hard for the funny
There's a good story to be told in "Cougar Town," which premieres at 9:30 p.m. ET Wednesday on ABC. Courteney Cox plays a divorced mom of a teenage son who never got to sow her wild oats as a young woman and now is trying to figure out whether she wants to start now -- even if it means being labeled a "cougar," the either derisive or empowering term (depending on whom you ask) for a woman of a certain age who trolls for younger guys.
In Jules Cobb's case, that age is 40 (Cox is playing a few years younger than her actual age, 45). She has a pretty decent life on the surface -- she owns her own real estate agency, has raised a smart and sweet son, Travis (Dan Byrd, "Aliens in America" and "Heroes"), and has loyal friends in her neighbor Ellie (Christa Miller, "Scrubs") and her co-worker Laurie (Busy Philipps, "Made of Honor," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles").
She's also lonely, which in the pilot leads her to accept Laurie's invitation to a girls' night out, and which leads her to meet, then find herself at home with, a significantly younger guy. The situation causes all of Jules' neuroses about aging to spill out, and Cox -- as we know from 10 years of "Friends" -- does neurotic very, very well.
Jules discovers that she rather enjoys the way the guy makes her feel about herself ("I feel like I can see colors again," she marvels) -- but being rather new at the game, she has a hard time fitting it into the rest of her life. Travis is mortified when he catches her in not quite flagrante, and again when an overly sexed-up picture of his mom that Laurie uses for her real-estate signs becomes a prized object among some other kids. Ellie is alternately living vicariously through Jules and judging her, and Jules herself has a rather hard time keeping up with the younger Laurie's party-girl lifestyle.
Oh, and did I mention the neighbor (Josh Hopkins, "Swingtown") who's also newly divorced but has no shame about bedding a succession of much younger women, thereby driving Jules bananas?
That's a lot of plot crammed into the first two episodes, and at times "Cougar Town" feels pretty manic as it tries to cram all those things into 21 or 22 minutes of an episode. Cox is a gifted physical comic, but she (and other cast members) are often playing to the cheap seats when throttling back a step or two might work better.
To the credit of creators Bill Lawrence (who worked with Cox on "Friends" and created "Scrubs") and Kevin Biegel (another "Scrubs" vet), though, "Cougar Town" is not just a wink-wink farce about a sexy 40-year-old. The show is at its best when it slows down and lets Cox explore the tangle of emotions Jules is experiencing as a single woman.
Cox is also completely unafraid of playing the fool or looking vulnerable. The opening scene in the pilot is of Jules examining herself in the mirror and cataloging all the flaws she sees -- a little extra skin here, a jiggle under the arm there. We should all be so lucky to look as good as Cox does at 40 or 45, but it's still kind of remarkable to see an actress put herself out there like that.
"Cougar Town" hasn't worked out all its kinks yet. But Cox is enough of a force, and there are enough hints of a clear direction for its future, to stick with it while it does.
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