Opening scene of “Cougar Town,” TBS edition. The gang enter Jules’ kitchen.
“It feels like we’ve been gone over a year!” says Laurie, played by Busy Phillips. (Actually, it’s only been eight months but who’s counting?)
Jules (Courteney Cox): “I honestly thought we’d never be in this kitchen again just hanging out telling our stories to each other, to the world.”
Travis, her son, played by former Marietta resident Dan Byrd: “Where were you guys?”
Jules: “Over at Ellie’s. We ran out of wine. Really intense!”
They go through their ritual of opening wine bottles.
Travis, looking exasperated: “Are you alcoholics? Are you all in AA?”
Jules: “Honey. That’s two different questions!”
Drink up as the title card shows up:
“Welcome back to Cougar Town. Thanks TBS. Can we curse on TV now?”
Yes, the “Cougar Town” crew is back and ready to get their drink on. Creator Bill Lawrence sensed ABC wavering on renewal last year and approached TBS, a network he thought would be compatible with the show’s oeuvre.
He was right. TBS bit. The Atlanta-based network, which still relies heavily on repeats of “The Big Bang Theory” in prime time, is seeking solid original programming. Its only message to Lawrence: keep doing what you’re doing.
“We’re doing the same show,” Lawrence said in an interview last week. “The biggest difference is the marketing and promotion. They do it like it’s a feature film. I understand the burden when you’re a broadcast network. You have to spread your advertising dollars around and only one or two shows get the attention. It’s strange. We’re a fourth-year show and I go to New York and see a 150-foot billboard in Time Square. I’m watching Major League Baseball and see a commercial for ‘Cougar Town.’ It’s really cool. It’s a cool business model. They’ll get more showrunners over there.”
A year ago, Lawrence (also known for “Spin City” and “Scrubs”) was so desperate for publicity for his show, he shelled out more than $10,000 of his own money to host “Cougar Town” parties across the nation, including Atlanta, where Byrd showed up at Dantanna’s at CNN Center and played “Cougar Town” show creation Penny Can with fans. (I was there and the bill for more than 50 fans: $1,300.)
“I’m not sure I could get another group of seven actors to travel around the country drinking with fans like that,” he said.
Byrd, in a separate interview last month, loved doing promotion for the show and is just thrilled to be able to stick around another season. He also agreed that the show has not shifted in tone or style at all, sticking with witty repartee and quick-fire scenes. “We’re kind of established,” he said. “Everyone knows what they’re doing.” At the same time, he enjoys being “a bigger fish in a smaller pond. We feel like we’re wanted. We were fighting tooth and nail last year. It’s kind of a renewed spirit.”
He has worked in places where network executives are “standoffish and unapproachable. Everyone at TBS is genuinely nice and very approachable. I think it helps they aren’t in this bubble that is Los Angeles.”
While “Cougar Town” is getting top billing on TBS, the ratings expectations are far different. If the show, which averaged a relatively modest 5.14 million viewers season three on ABC, pulls in around 3 million viewers an episode on TBS, it will be deemed a success.
As for the show itself, it’s not exactly “Revenge,” with massive twists and turns. Lawrence said Jules and Grayson adjust to being married. Laurie and Travis plumb the “cougar” theme given their age difference, but Laurie’s boyfriend comes back from Afghanistan to add a wrench to that idea. Jule’s ailing father shows up, played by Ken Jenkins, who was Dr. Kelso on “Scrubs.” (Lawrence doesn’t mind using his actors from “Scrubs’ when he can.) And there will be an “flashback” episode where we’ll hear Jules using a thick Southern accent. (It’s not a stretch: Cox is from Alabama.)
Coolest guest star: Shirley Jones, of “Partridge Family” fame, who will play a neighbor in the cul-de-sac. “It’s pretty fun for me to book people I grew up with,” Lawrence said.
For Byrd, he said they like to torture him at times. In one upcoming scene, he will be suspended on a harness in front of a green screen with a girl. “I have no clothes on except boxers,” he said. “We’re re-enacting a sci-fi scene. It was the most insane wedgie you’ll ever have times ten. I was trying to put on a brave face but it hurt so bad.” And his relationship with his fictional mom remains the same: “She still loves me too much, in a weird way, almost.”
One bit of schtick is the show’s title card. Each week, the writers change it up. In the past they’ve frequently mocked show title itself, which nowadays has little to do with the actual show but Lawrence now takes as a point of pride. For the writers, thinking up new witticisms for each episode’s title card (of which they’ll be 15 this year) “helps you procrastinate,” he said. “Combine that and the amount of time [co-creator] Kevin Biegel and I play Penny Can and we can run a completely separate TV show.”
Sadly, this season will feature less Penny Can – more for production reasons than creative reasons. “The problem is every time the writers include Penny Can, the actors stop working and start playing the dumb game. Shooting comes to a halt. It’s a nightmare!”
Lawrence is clearly a good person to work with. Through “Spin City” and “Scrubs,” much of his crew has stuck with him over two decades. “Its’ a family environment,” he said. “We like each other. I’ve reached the point where life’s too short. There is truly a no a**hole policy. We work with people we want to work with.”
“Cougar Town,” 10 p.m. Tuesdays, TBS (sandwiched between, of course, repeats of “The Big Bang Theory”)