Some love it, some hate it – but after something of a false start, Courteney Cox’s comedy Cougar Town has found its groove and is here to stay. John Byrne meets the former Friends star on the show’s Tinseltown set.
Sometimes a TV show hits the small screen running, gets it right from the start and just keeps going. In recent times, we’ve had the likes of 'The Good Wife', 'Modern Family' and, here at home, 'Love/Hate'. Then there are the shows that die an almost instant death, gone after a few episodes, their stars looking for work. Only very rarely does a show start, falter, get a chance to modify itself, and then take off. Cougar Town is one such show.
Initial reaction to the comedy was so-so, with many commentators remarking on the narrow confines it had set itself – 40-something recently divorced mother on the prowl for younger men – but, after a while, Cougar Town reinvented itself as a sitcom about a bunch of friends looking out for, and hanging out with, each other.
Suddenly, everything clicked. We’re on the show’s set, in Culver Studios in Los Angeles County, a location steeped in Hollywood history. Almost 100 years old, it’s where Gone with the Wind and ET were filmed (and that’s just for starters), as well as a whole load of hit TV shows. As it’s a typically sunny day in LA, the interview with Courteney takes place out on the street in front of Cox’s character Jules Cobb’s real estate office. It must be noted that this is unusual – most set visits are indoors. So we get to hang out outside the Gulf Haven cinema (which, according to its exterior, is showing two fictitious movies called Odin’s Quest and The Mighty Lynn). Further down the street, you can see the local coffee shop and, further in the distance, Jules’ house. It’s all pretty compact and shows, once again, that much of TV is about creating an illusion.
The cast are on a break, so there’s a touch of ‘out of class’ playfulness between Cox and her Cougar Town co-star Dan Byrd (who plays Jules Cobb’s son Travis) before we begin, with the former pretending to wipe the latter’s face clean with a finger. "Apparently", laughs Dan Byrd, "I have pasta sauce on my face."
This little cameo sums up the very pleasant buzz that prevails around the 'Cougar Town' set. On some shows, it’s all serious faces, let’s get to work; on others, it’s even worse – the actors are openly hostile towards each other and submerged in massive egos. Here on 'Cougar Town', you feel like you’ve bunked into a private party. What you see on TV – a pile of people having fun – is exactly what it’s like in reality, and that’s just the way Cox wanted it after 'Friends' and everything else she has experienced in showbusiness.
Referring to the Central Perk show, she explains her thought process coming to Cougar Town: "I'd already been on such a good show, and how was I going to find the right one? And I wanted to work with [producer] Bill Lawrence. Even though I met every producer in town, I knew I wanted to work with Bill, but I think he had a little bit of reservation working with someone who was going to be his partner as opposed to just an actor for hire."
At that time, Lawrence was heavily involved in Scrubs, which provided an ideal environment for him and Cox to suss out each other. "So we worked together on Scrubs, and that worked out", she explains. "He could tell that I was someone he would gel with. You know, I've been doing this for too long just to be an actor on a show. I really love to produce. I love to get my hands in it. I really care about editing. I don't have to do this so much. I just want to be surrounded by nice people, no assholes . . . and this is a medium that I can work in."
Although the show has moved way beyond the ‘cougar’ concept of the predatory older woman chasing younger males, Cox and co. decided not to change the title, which had been suggested.
Instead, they decided to take a different approach, and kept 'Cougar Town', almost as a badge of dishonour. "Really the title is just something that we make fun of", says Cox, grinning broadly, while agreeing that the original concept had taken a hike to Nowhere. The decision was also taken to turn the show into an ensemble piece rather than a platform for guest stars, like some kind of middle-aged, alcohol-soaked version of Glee. "You know, it went from me dating younger guys, and then they realised – as opposed to getting these guest stars who would just be there for one week and leave – we're not really investing in this. Let's invest in the characters because it was always an ensemble show. Let's invest in the characters that we see every day and work on those relationships. You know, those formulas always work. I mean, we did it with Friends. We did it with Cheers."
Like another ABC show, 'Brothers & Sisters', wine now plays a huge part in the daily lives of 'Cougar Town' characters. The other week on Sky Living, viewers saw Jules suffer the trauma of seeing her favourite wine glass, ‘Big Joe’, getting broken. And it was a major trauma, but soon smoothed over by the arrival of a new glass, ‘Big Carl’. Unsurprisingly, Courteney Cox likes a tipple. "I do like red wine, and I do like Las Pagodas, but I [also] like French wines and Italian wines", she says. "I like California wines, but . . . I don't like them as sweet as I used to, and I enjoy vodka as well."
But a fondness for a gargle isn’t the only thing Jules and Courteney have in common. When asked how much of herself goes into Jules, she admits "A ton, a ton", before praising producer Bill Lawrence’s ability to draw on the cast’s own personalities for the show’s characters. "Bill is really good about getting to know all of us as people and writing and incorporating it into our characters. He likes to write for the person, and that's what makes it so much fun to play because you're taking parts of your personality that have now been exaggerated, but it's just really fun. I'm having a ball playing this character."