8:00pm PT by Danielle Turchiano
'Cougar Town' Postmortem: Bill Lawrence on Saying Goodbye to the Cul-de-Sac Crew
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series finale of TBS' Cougar Town.]
Pour one out for Jules "Kiki" Cobb (Courteney Cox) and the rest of the cul-de-sac crew of Cougar Town. The ABC-turned-TBS sitcom said its final goodbyes Tuesday in an episode that faked out its lead character and much of its audience most of the time.
"Mary Jane's Last Dance" started with Jules asking Grayson (Josh Hopkins) for a seemingly ridiculous, if not impossible, birthday present. She wanted to see what her own funeral would be like just so she could hear her closest friends say the nicest things about her. But her slightly off-handed request was soon overshadowed by an influx of change as Andy (Ian Gomez) and Ellie (Christa Miller) prepared to pick up and move so their son could be in a better school while Travis (Dan Byrd) and Laurie (Busy Philipps) prepared to head out of state after his wine-delivery business took off.
Each important member of Jules' extended family — even Bobby (Brian Van Holt), who was back via iPad — took time to tell her just how much she has meant to them over the years. They were tributes fitting for a series finale, but just as the tears started to well, the truth came out: Grayson had orchestrated everything just to give Jules what she really wanted for her birthday. No one was moving away; in fact, they were about to get closer, as Travis and Laurie ended up buying Grayson's old house to become an even more official part of the crew.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with series co-creator Bill Lawrence to discuss bringing the story to a close after two networks, six seasons and more than 100 episodes.
Knowing the show had to wrap up and say goodbye to these characters and relationships, what were the storylines you felt needed a little extra time?
We wanted to play the stuff with Jules' father out a bit, not just drop it and have him living with them in the house. We wanted to play Travis and Laurie out because it was a tightrope — some people liked it [when they got together] and some didn't, and we wanted to make sure they were still fun characters, not just some married couple. The main thing we wanted to do was make Bob Clendenin step up as a regular in the last year because he really earned it. But the coolest thing about Cougar Town was there was never any real burden because — intentionally — it's not a show about shocking events. It's not like Friends. There's no end to Cougar Town, where it's time for people to grow up and get new jobs and have babies. These people are all in their 40s, and they're settled. And that's why we're able to tweak the conventions in the finale.
Yet in the finale, you did make it seem like people were growing up, moving on and getting new jobs. Did you think that kind of fakeout was risky?
We knew we could fake it! We knew, writing it, that if we followed it through and it was actually happening, it would be disingenuous. I felt that right at the point where people are getting pissed off and thinking we were actually doing that, we'd be like, "Of course no one's going anywhere!"
This show has developed such a specific lexicon over the years as well as a sense of whimsy with the games the characters play. Which of those elements were your "musts" for the series finale, especially after returning to such a memorable theme with the penultimate, "Two Story Town?"
The most fun thing about writing the finale was getting in a room together with the guys [Blake McCormick and Kevin Biegel] and actually talking about all of that. We had to do "Change approved!" because that always makes me so happy. We had to bring in her wine glass; we had to do her ridiculous over-the-top love for her son; had to do Busy Philipps meandering story, and I liked that we called her on it for once. We had to find a way for Brian Van Holt to be in it, even though he had moved on. We had to find a way to hit on Andy and Bobby's love for each other. We were able to do everything for us. It's a show of fun callbacks and continuity for people, so we wanted to throw in as much as we possibly could.
Speaking of Big Chuck, what was the discussion like over whether or not it should survive the season?
We really do it on a whim. We don't have a lot of forethought, but we knew she would break one because she always does.
Were there attempts to bring Brian Van Holt back physically for the series finale?
He was working [on another project], so it was just easier to work him in [via iPad]. The second we put him on an iPad, he could shoot seven days of work in one day, so we were able to make it happen production-wise. He sat in front of the camera and did all of his lines for 33 pages, across the episodes of the season, all at once. It probably took him like an hour and a half! We knew we needed him in the final season, but he had another gig we had to work around.
How did you work the final season of Cougar Town into your already busy schedule, with NBC's Undateable, TBS' now canceled Ground Floor, as well as two CBS pilots?
The honest truth is that I would be disingenuous and grossly self-aggrandizing if I was not giving huge credit to Blake McCormick and Melody Derloshon, who both were just super cool about staying the whole time. It's cool when you are with friends or a group who don't feel threatened when you come back. I did as many cuts as I could, and I contributed whatever I could — and so did Kevin — but I don't want to steal any thunder from the group. They were nice enough to let us come back and write the finale and participate whenever we could. And look, with my wife as one of the stars, I could never completely get away! If she didn't like a joke, it would be on my pillow like, "Do you want to fix this?" (Laughs.)
Looking back on the series as a whole, at what point, if at all, did you step back and look at what you were creating and feel like you were doing something unique that could sustain for 100 episodes?
We started out thinking we were going to make a campy show about a recently single woman in her 40s really getting to be a kid for the first time, but it just wasn't in our wheelhouse as writers, and I didn't like putting Courteney in those situations. She was game, and she was funny, but it wasn't my favorite. Really quickly we sat down and said, "What is this show really about?" And we decided it was about a bunch of people — a divorced neighbor; an ex-husband that lives on a boat; a couple who has a really young kid and tied down by it; a townie who's outgrown her townie roots; a nerdy, wiser-than-his-years kid. We decided it was ultimately a show about people that would all be very good for each other.
Then we did [the seventh episode of the first season, "Don't Come Around Here No More"], where they challenged [Jules] to spend a day alone, and by the end of that day, not only was she hanging out with everyone and having a barbecue, but she seduced them back by promising Andy that she'd create the full Shawshank Redemption experience. At the end of the day, it wasn't just her; everybody realized they'd rather be hanging out with each other drinking a beer or a glass of wine and goofing around. That second the show was really working creatively, and we knew what the show was really about.
Did you have the expectation of hitting the milestones of 100 episodes or so many seasons at that point?
No. I did feel there was a missed opportunity by me because with modern TV, we lose audience members quick, and if I had known that right at the very beginning, people wouldn't have thought the show was about older women screwing around with younger dudes. That's why we have such a love-hate relationship with the title! But once we figured out what this show was, one of the writers actually tweeted that we thought the show would go on for six years and 100 episodes, and we made it.
There are so many pieces of the show that have taken off with the audience — from Penny Can to truth guns — but which are the ones that have meant the most to you?
In a very odd way on the writing side, I look forward to and really like the changing title card every week, believe it or not, because we went through such a self-hatred of why we titled the show Cougar Town and "Well, it got the show picked up, but now it's not what it's about, and now should we retitle it? No, to hell with it. Let's just own it. It is what it is." That's kind of a fun process that makes me smile when I see it. Otherwise, my favorite moments are not really stuff I created, to tell you the truth, as much as it is watching the real-life elements come in. The shows that work really well, you want to hang out with the people, and you become friends in real life. The finale works because I forced each person within the show to say goodbye to each other, and how tight they were and that emotion was all real because they actually did give a shit about each other. So to me, the most fun was watching all of those relationships develop. It was a show about adult friendship, and because of that, people love each other but they're also going to drive each other crazy, so the real gift about the show was being able to work with people you want to hang out with anyway. The coolest thing about Cougar Town was the family feel to it.
What did you think of the Cougar Town finale? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.