When they premiered in the fall of 2009, ABC’s Cougar Town and NBC’s Community had a fair amount in common. Both revolved around attractive people who, when thrown together by chance (residence on the same cul-de-sac; registration in the same Spanish class), formed families of choice, complete with one reluctant member each (Grayson on Cougar Town; Jeff on Community). Both began with the idea that the protagonist was returning to carefree youth; both quickly abandoned said premise. Both keep adding more and more tertiary characters as their producers build out bigger and bigger worlds. Both have been celebrated by critics, and yet both struggle in the ratings, with the consequence that both were pulled from their networks’ schedules. And both, like all shows worth watching, have evolved in their time on the air—but in opposite directions.
Community’s wild willingness to try on different genres depending on each high-concept episode’s storyline—spaghetti western, horror, and so on—may suggest the playfulness of a show that’s sunny, silly, and light. But the show has actually grown darker and more melancholy as time has worn on. Cougar Town, on the other hand, which returns to the air tonight, has grown looser, dopier, and more “about nothing” than Seinfeld ever was: It is now the TV equivalent of a friendly golden retriever. While Community’s underdog status seems to have prompted its creator, Dan Harmon, to take the show even further into defensive and defiant insularity, Cougar Town is embracing its possibly imminent annihilation by drinking, having fun, and living as if every episode were its last.
Consider the Community episode “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which aired in October. A study group Yahtzee party gives way to multiple alternate-universe outcomes based on each possible roll of the dice. In the end, the surviving members of the group realize that they’re living in “the darkest timeline” (a phrase fans revived when NBC announced its plans to pull the show from the schedule starting in January).
The episode neatly encapsulated what Community fans love most about the show: It had a high-concept premise, gave each character a showcase, and made an affectionate reference to a semi-forgotten (and somewhat nerdy) touchstone of popular culture. Above all, though, it actively repelled would-be bandwagon jumpers. If this were the first episode of Community you had ever seen, you would have no reason to try watching another; given the episode’s aggressive insularity, you might even feel unwelcome to do so. (The last episode to air before NBC pulled it from the schedule was a half-hour riff on Glee, which also premiered in the fall of 2009, and which has outshone both Community and Cougar Town in terms of awards and ratings. What a shame that fans’ freshest memory of Community should be an episode that’s so jealous and bitter—and about a show that’s clearly losing buzz on its own, anyway.)
Then there’s Cougar Town. It, too, deals in the self-referential: In its second season, each episode’s title card featured a different apology for the now-inaccurate series title. (The show originally featured Courteney Cox as a 40-year-old woman who dated younger men—i.e., a “cougar.” It has long since abandoned that premise.) But while Community mirrors its characters’ hesitancy about admitting new members into its little group, Cougar Town is an open house where the wine flows freely and even Tom, the weirdest guy on the cul-de-sac will (eventually) be (provisionally) accepted. Cougar Town knows you probably haven’t been watching, but it’s happy to bring you up to speed, goofily.
On Cougar Town, even a seemingly serious relationship impediment like partners’ incompatible willingness to have kids is nothing that can’t be resolved on a two-part season-finale Hawaiian vacation (the only place sunnier than the show’s usual location: Florida). Though it has had frequent crossovers with the pessimistic Community, Cougar Town is a show without a “darkest timeline.” This season may very well be the last for both Community and Cougar Town, but whereas the former keeps putting its characters in situations that leave them persecuted and angry, the latter is ignoring its possible primetime funeral in favor of an Irish wake, and keeping its characters tipsy and ridiculous. You should watch.