Courtney Cox, Josh Hopkins
Now here's about the nicest Valentine's Day present anyone could hope for: the long-awaited return of Cougar Town, a show that's so much fun to love, you can't help but wonder if ABC kept it off the air so long just to make our hearts grow fonder. (You know, the old "absence" trick.)
I joke (though who's laughing?), because its banishment from the fall lineup — "hiatus" sounds too polite a term to describe this last half-year in limbo — was a serious setback for a show that was part of the network's revolutionary comedy comeback of 2009. Saddled with an unfortunate title it continues to mock in its opening credits, Cougar Town has evolved from a farce about a sexually frustrated divorced mom into a blissfully zany ensemble comedy about an extended family of wine-besotted friends.
Witty and wacky — but emphasizing the wacky above all — this sharp-tongued, sweet-souled sitcom picks up without losing a (heart)beat in a pivotal and well-timed episode (8:30/7:30c) titled "Ain't Love Strange." The course of true-ish love has never run entirely smoothly for Jules (Courteney Cox) and Grayson (Josh Hopkins), and their latest molehill of a self-inflicted spat begins when "the gang" declares Jules to be predictable. "Just when I thought you were going to zig, you zig," Grayson goads her, while insisting she's not boring — even as she applies the anti-aphrodisiac of her mouth guard before bed, which Grayson declares is "my Everest."
Cougar Town certainly isn't boring, as it juggles kooky subplots involving neighbors Ellie and Andy, living in fear that little Stan is becoming a "devil baby" — and bringing in the loopy Laurie as exorcist does nothing to ease Ellie's worries — while Travis is back at college, where he and his roomies have installed a homemade green screen that becomes an inspired visual running gag. It all ends with a moment that renders a major character "speechless," and you can only imagine how rare that is in the world of snark, sass and Shiraz that is Cougar Town. Please prove ABC's strategy wrong and welcome it back with open arms.
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Among other highlights of what has become one of the most dauntingly overstuffed nights of the TV week:
SCREAM ME A RIVER: In the third hour of the spooky thrill ride of ABC's The River (9/8c), it's a literal case of the blind leading the blind, as nearly everyone on The Magus loses their sight one by one while a fearsome tribe known as the "Guardians of the Jungle" lurks in and around the boat to pronounce judgment on these interlopers. "We're just trying to make a TV show" is not going to be an adequate defense, and as a medical crisis erupts onboard, panic sets in, making everyone even more jumpy than usual. Which is saying a lot. Hang on and enjoy the jolts and shocks. The River is such a guilty pleasure.
SOUTHLAND'S TOP COP: This is the episode of TNT's Southland (10/9C) I've been waiting all season for, a much-deserved spotlight for Michael Cudlitz, who shines — or, more accurately, simmers on low boil — as senior officer John Cooper, the aching backbone and moral compass of his squad of patrol cops. Acknowledged two years late for his 20 years of service, he tells his partner Jessica Tang (a very strong Lucy Liu) that he's aiming for 30 "and a day" before hanging it up. Until then, it's a grueling grind through an urban landscape of searing emotional pain — although often leavened by gallows humor and a healthy respect for shameless pranks.
Cooper's encounter with a troubled gay teen brings out his most humane and selfless side: "Just giving the city its money's worth," he jokes to Tang, but we all know better. His legacy isn't in the anecdotes being told at the cop bar, but in the dedication to getting back out on the street the next day, regardless of the triumphs and tragedies from the latest tour of duty.
UNDER THE SKIN: "You think this is a joke?" screams a desperate Dewey Crowe (the hilariously pathetic Damon Herriman) in tonight's laugh-till-you-cringe episode of FX's first-rate Justified (10/9c). He has a point. No show better balances the funny with the grisly, and as dopey Dewey falls victim to an especially sadistic organ-harvesting caper that sets him off on a penny-ante crime spree, you can't help fearing for his life as well as those in his shaky trajectory — and ultimately, for Raylan Givens as well, who once again finds himself coming to the rescue of a degenerate who'd just as soon see him dead.
NEVER LOSE HOPE: On a potentially game-changing Raising Hope (Fox, 9:31/8:31c), forlorn Jimmy Chance is roped into making one last play for his eternal and elusive valentine Sabrina by inventing a fake girlfriend. When he's cornered into actually producing said squeeze, enter local improv ace Mary-Louise (High School Musical's Ashley Tisdale) to make a "scene." Will Sabrina fall for it — and more important, will she fall for Jimmy? Hope springs eternal in an endearing episode that could literally light up your life. (Just try getting that blasted song out of your head.)
BRINGING HOPE: When the streets are as mean as the war zone of inner-city Chicago, any ray of uplift is to be welcomed. Enter The Interrupters, the subject of a wrenching and ultimately inspiring documentary from Hoop Dreams' Steve James, arriving on TV courtesy of PBS' invaluable Frontline. The title characters are members of CeaseFire, an organization whose specialty is mediating conflicts at ground level to keep them from escalating into tragic bloodshed. With shrines to the fallen as an impetus, these crusaders have street cred, because most come from gang and criminal backgrounds, including the fiery Ameena Matthews, daughter of a legendary gang leader. "There's still some hope left," she insists, as we follow the team over a year's time, performing pro-active community outreach: winning some, losing some, and never afraid to get right in the middle of a combustible situation to defuse the danger with confrontational compassion.
SIGNING THE TV GUEST BOOK: Though not available for review, here are some sweeps-month stunt castings to look out for tonight: On Fox's Glee (8/7c), we finally meet Rachel's gay dads: Jeff Goldblum and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The episode is built around classic love songs, and with Amber Riley belting out "I Will Always Love You," the hour is reportedly being dedicated to Whitney Houston's memory. ... Jess is spending her first Valentine's Day as a single girl on Fox's New Girl (9/8c), but possibly not alone — as she contemplates a one-night stand with a hunky stranger (True Blood's Ryan Kwanten). ... And it's a blast from Tony's past on NCIS (CBS, 8/7c), as he's reunited with his journalist ex-fiancé (Perrey Reeves, aka Entourage's Mrs. Ari) on a case involving a secret society of would-be superheroes.