When Cougar Town debuted a year ago as a series about a newly divorced mom (Courteney Cox) not altogether comfortable playing the modern mating game, critics were split: Some enthused about Cox’s “completely winning” performance as Jules Cobb, while others couldn’t get past the bawdier elements of the pilot and declared Cougar Town a “mess of a place no one would want to visit, even for a half-hour.” Creators Bill Lawrence and Kevin Beigel realized that something was wrong, too, and rapidly shifted gears: Realizing that Jules’s flailing reentry into the dating world wasn’t much fun, they began telling stories about her relationships with her son and her tight-knit social network of friends and neighbors. So-so buzz turned stellar, ratings solidified, and tonight at 9:30, Cougar Town kicks off its sophomore season. Vulture talked at length with Lawrence and had him detail the process of how TV writers fix a show that isn’t working — and explain why he’s still pissed at himself for naming the show Cougar Town.
The Cougar Town that debuted a year ago this month is very much different than the show which signed off in May, and returns tonight. What happened?
Two things: First, I believe that 99 percent of successful TV shows change an immense amount from the pilot, to the tenth or twelfth episode. The original Family Ties was about two liberal parents who sang a folk song in the pilot and their kinda conservative kids. And then they found Michael J. Fox. The original Seinfeld had one-third of the show in comedy clubs with him doing his stand-up act. Even Spin City [which Lawrence co-created], we wrote that initially as half romantic comedy, and half with him in an office; within twelve episodes, it was a workplace comedy. Shows find what works for them and evolve. Our show did some of that in a very traditional way.
But the second thing is, we also gave our show a title that, in our heads, we thought was campy because the story we were telling was of a recently single 40-year-old woman with an 18-year-old kid reemerging into the world. We never thought we’d be 100 percent telling the story of Courteney fucking young guys like Samantha from Sex and the City. But we did think that we would be doing a little bit more of her dealing with the double standards of … how hard it is to find some kind of social life without being judged. Once we got away from that, the vestiges of our show that seemed to be in any way about the title Cougar Town made these sorts of natural changes seem more drastic.
So get specific. What didn’t work?
One, let’s talk the nuts and bolts production of it all. Early on, doing this show, we noticed the nightmare of trying to do a network single-camera comedy about a woman essentially getting out of her home and going to a nightclub or the beach or a hotel when you have five days to shoot 31 pages and a limited budget. We couldn’t make it fabulous [like Sex and the City], with them going to different restaurants in New York City, or cool like Entourage, with Courteney at fancy clubs with other celebrities. In our model, I wasn’t enjoying it as much when Courteney was out with an episodic actor or a day player actor.
We found ourselves saying, “We need to make this show more claustrophobic in nature.” So the neighbor who was a shrink, we’re going to make him own a bar so they have somewhere to go. We did things production-wise that gave us easy venues to have this group together … and we got into a place where the cast was developing so much chemistry together.
What was the uh-oh moment where you realized things needed to change?
The low moment came when we had done an arc with a young guy, Nick Zano, who’s a great young actor. And I didn’t believe, and not because of his acting — but I like writing TV shows that have some sort of stakes, where the story actually matters and it’s not just, “Hoooo, this is funny! Who gives a fuck?” I realized that nobody’s going to ever fucking care if she dumps this guy or not. It might be funny, but it has no real underlying drama to it. It gave me an uh-oh: I’ve put Courteney in a world where people are going to end up caring more about the secondary stories than her stories.
And what was the point in the show when you figured out where to go instead, the a-ha moment?
The first a-ha moment was when we put an alligator in her backyard, and she was challenged by her neighbor to spend a day alone. She gradually brings all her friends over to her house for a BBQ. Not only did I think it was a funny episode, but it was incredibly easy to write. The previous episodes were like pulling teeth to write. When you’re on a show that’s hard to write, you’re on a show that’s inherently flawed. When it’s easy to write, then you’ve found a world that’s worked. And for us, that was a show about Courteney’s character retreating to her safe world … a story about adult friendship. These were stories Kevin and I like to tell. We’ve both reached the points in our lives when we have our children and our friends, and we don’t venture out of that claustrophobic world much. Christa [Miller, Lawrence’s wife and Ellie on the show] and I don’t go east of La Cienega at night because I don’t want to have to drive that far to go to dinner. So that became the thematic umbrella for our show. It’s a show about how grown-ups spend their time together.
But doesn’t that also make it hard to find stakes?
No. The other part of this was the calculating business side: We looked at Modern Family’s success. And I saw that, even though it was under the radar, The Middle was a good show. In order to succeed with this [ABC comedy] block, we needed to find our version of a modern dysfunctional family show. And I would argue the Cul-De-Sac crew is their own family. As one of the other writers on the show said, Cougar Town is now about a whole bunch of people who, were it not for each other, would all be incredibly lonely. There’s a divorced woman who’s 40, an adult son who doesn’t have a lot of super-close friends his age, a divorced ex-husband who feels like a loser and lives on a boat, a guy across the street who lives in a big empty house because his wife left him, and a friend who used to be a professional and now feels trapped because she has a baby.
Let’s switch gears to what’s going on in the show. First, what’s with all the wine drinking on the show? You make a joke about it in tonight’s season premiere …
It’s basically from real life. As soon as I get off the phone with you, I’m going to go home, I’m going to make sure my kids see me, and then I’m going to have a hefty glass of red wine. No product placement, but it seems like something we could finagle.
There was a lot of Scrubs-like zaniness as the show progressed last season. Most of it was great, but some of it was a little out there, even for you.
This show walks more of a tightrope than Scrubs because there’s no fantasy world. We’re still finding the show, and we’ve been talking about what worked and the mistakes we’ve made. Every successful show has a danger area. On Moonlighting, it was, “Do we make them a couple? And when we do, are we dead?” And on my shows, the danger area seems to be, “If I get too ludicrous, can people still believe the characters anymore?”
So we were talking it out, and we decided that bad is Courteney Cox leaning into her sweater and licking where her son’s tears were. Too broad, too zany, played to us as a little unreal. Good: Courteney Cox hugging her son and whispering to him, “Sometimes I wish I could be shrunk down so that I could live in your blood.” Because that’s her saying something, an insane thought she might have had, rather than actually doing it, and crossing a line of reality that didn’t work for us. That’s the danger line for me. The second people aren’t believable as grown-ups, I’m doomed. But some of the best moments in comedy are the ones that play right up to that line.
One thing that could be inappropriate is a romantic relationship between Dan Byrd and Busy Philipps’s characters of Travis and Laurie. But there definitely seems to be chemistry there. Any chance you’ll go there?
He’s actually 24 playing 19, while she’s 28 playing 29, so they’re actually contemporaries in real life. Originally we thought it was going to be a big sister, little brother thing. But there’s an undercurrent of him having a crush on her, and her thinking Travis is her ideal man. If the show exists when he’s a junior in college, I would be shocked if [a relationship] hasn’t happened.
So what can you tell us about the new season?
Well, Bobby — it’s so much fun to make him a lovable loser. But if you go too far down to where viewers can’t respect him, you’re screwed. We want to keep him living on the boat, but he’s finally going to get off of palimony this season. As for Josh and Courtney [Grayson and Jules], the danger of them together is that it’s working, and they’ve got chemistry. But Josh’s character was conceived as this sort of douche-y guy, an emotionless character with some edge. He’s going to try to reclaim some of that. He’s still a bit of a stand-offish prick.
We’ve also got a huge Thanksgiving episode. It’s another giant dysfunctional Thanksgiving episode, but Jules is going to accidentally poison Grayson. It’s a disaster. And this is a spoiler, but Ryan Devlin and Busy’s character are breaking up. But we’re keeping him on the show and in our world. We get miles of comedy from Ryan.
Is it sort of a mixed blessing being behind Modern Family? It’s a strong lead-in, but expectations and scrutiny are high.
People in TV have short memories. If a year before we premiered, someone had told ABC that Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel are going to create a show that, against the last half-hour of the American Idol results show, is going to regularly pull a 3 rating [in the 18 to 49 demo], where they’d been doing a 1.5, they would’ve said, “I’ll kiss you right now.” But Modern Family came on and just crushed it, and that hurt us perception-wise. They came out of the gate, creatively, further ahead than us. They knew right from the start what their show was. I feel like we gradually found our audience, but the tough part of modern TV is, right around the dates we figured out what this show is and critics started to turn around, American Idol started. Our small victories toward the end were that AI started and hammered us, but then we started making tiny gains. Yet the perception was (the opposite). It’s the danger of ratings watching.
How do you think the ratings will play out this season?
A couple of things make me real optimistic. One is, I feel like it’s a bit of a different TV landscape for us. The scary part is, Modern Family is only going to get bigger and better. It deservedly won awards and it’s become part of the zeitgeist. So there’s the potential for the gap (to get bigger), and for us to suffer in comparison. But American Idol isn’t against us [in the fall] and I don’t think it will be as big without Simon. So we have a chance to do what How I Met Your Mother did, which is to make the transition from being perceived as, “Oh, it’s not really retaining enough of its [lead-in] audience. Is it still going to be around?” to not doing completely drastically different numbers, but [slowly building].
Also, one of the things I know about [new ABC Entertainment president] Paul Lee is … he’s not a believer in a lot of time-slot juggling. He knows you pick a time slot and let people get to know a show. And I truly believe we’re going to be in this time slot and have a chance to find ourselves.
You considered changing the title.
I’ll kick myself till the end of the time, but there’s a potential for this show to either continue along where it’s at or not reach the level it could reach simply because I gave it, with Kevin, the shittiest title of all time. You can overcome a bad title: I love How I Met Your Mother, but when I first saw the title, I thought, “Wow, that’s a little wordy.” But we gave the show a title that not only is horrible but that, for someone who hasn’t checked out the show, it’s a title that says to them what the show is — even though it isn’t. I think it truly is an issue. After a year, I’ll still read the gossip magazines, like Us Weekly — you know, Jennifer Aniston went out on a date with Josh Hopkins and they’ll say, “Oh, he’s on Cougar Town, the show about Courteney Cox trying to have sex with younger guys!” My biggest fear is, that might be the thing that brings the show down, and that’s my fault.
So why not change it?
At this point, and this is the positive of it, the show is on ABC. It’s owned by ABC Studios. There’s a very good demographic breakdown among the people who are watching it. And they like it creatively. The reality for us is, if we hold on to a 3 in the demo and continue the status quo, it’ll be like Scrubs. It’ll be a modest success and it’ll be on for years. And there’s an inherent risk in changing the title that you’ll lose the people you have. You lose all the DVR programming. And it sends the message to some people who love the show that the show they loved is gone, or is changing, or is pandering. We chose sticking with it and overcoming it. But if I could get in a time machine and go back, I would do everything in my life just about the same — except I’d title this The Courteney Cox Show.