In Defense of "Cougar Town"

What Women Really Think
Nov. 2 2009 11:54 AM

In Defense of "Cougar Town"

Emily Nussbaum, who has been suspiciously circling Courtney Cox’s new sitcom Cougar Town for weeks, finally makes the essay-length case against the show in this week’s New York : Cox’s Jules Cobb is no Samantha Jones.

The Samantha Jones iconography has gone retro, regressing to a Cathy cartoon in heels. Jules Cobb, the divorced ninny played by Cox, might date younger men but she’s no cougar. Instead, she is a prisoner of Cosmo (or maybe just L.A.), shrieking so relentlessly about her body’s disintegration you’d think the woman’s face was falling off in chunks à la Poltergeist . Samantha Jones might have been a cartoon, but she was a cartoon who loved pleasure. When Cougar Town talks dirty, it’s not really about sex. Or rather, it’s about sex as a measuring stick: proof you’re hot enough to make men want to have sex with you.
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But comparing Jules to Samantha is like comparing a mealy apple to a juicy orange: Yes, one is better, but that still doesn’t make them the same fruit.

Nussbaum is right about so much about Cougar Town . (Although in her focused attack she glosses over the fact that the show can be very funny-loose, zany, silly-not always thanks to Cox, who is in full screechy Monica mode, aiming for big laughs in the cheap seats with every single over-the-top line reading). She’s right that the actresses’ very obvious, real-life plastic surgeries are the liposuctioned elephants in the room. (Christa Miller, who appeared on The Drew Carey Show and Scrubs , and plays Cox’s fortysomething bestie, appeared so altered in the pilot she was hard to look at. Her husband, Bill Lawrence, is the show’s creator. Yikes.) Nussbaum’s right that jokes about not eating in front of your girlfriends aren’t funny. She’s right that Jules’ rule about not having sex with a guy for 10 dates is bizarre, nonsensical, and belittling.

Mostly, she’s right that Jules is no cougar. But I don’t think that’s the insult that Nussbaum means it to be, whatever the title of the show. No, Jules isn’t a cougar and that’s the whole point-she’s a wannabe. Samantha Jones may well be, as Nussbaum says, "the greatest TV cougar of our time," but she was also a superhero. "It wasn’t her sex drive that was appealing so much as her lunatic self-confidence," Nussbaum incisively observes. "She was so breezily self-assured in her desires that she redefined narcissism as something positive." Samantha’s total lack of insecurity made her a heroine, but it also made her not-quite-human: There may be some women (and men) walking around with Sam’s uncanny self-confidence, but they are few and far between, and none of them are the chicks self-identifying as cougars. All the women who enjoy that title, the Real Housewives who "love the term," as Nussbaum says, are fascinating because their self-professed confidence jars with their constant need to identify themselves as part of a trend, their obsession with appearance and youth, and a sexual ethos modeled on the unattractive behavior of crisis-ridden middle-aged men and immature twentysomethings.

In other words, in the "wild" and not on Sex and The City, being a cougar isn’t about being confident and cool and Samantha Jones-y, it’s about aspiring to be all of those things. Jules Cobb, with her shrieking insecurity, her unwillingness to nibble on cookies in front of her lifelong friends, her interest in sex, but also her interest in being deemed hot and her desire to loosen up by creating more rules, is nothing if not aspiring, and it can be uncomfortable and annoying to watch, both because it’s supposed to be, and because the show isn’t hitting all of its marks. If and when Cougar Town turns into the best show it could be, Jules won’t do nonsensical things like waiting 10 dates to have sex, but she still won’t be anything like Samantha.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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