“Refugee” is the episode of Cougar Town I’ve been dreading all season. It’s the episode where the show, which has been dutifully trudging forward as if there’s no problem, finally collapses because there’s nothing else for it to give. That isn’t to say that it was absolutely miserable, but rather (and perhaps more damning) that it was dull up until the ending credits. Cougar Town has long had problems getting itself energized enough to create compelling stories, but that’s also been kind of the point. It’s only here where it’s really hit a wall by also missing that extra spark of creativity that has kept the show afloat for this long.
The worst story in “Refugee” concerned Travis and Laurie decorating her house. That is, essentially, the entirety of the plot. I don’t even mean to say that wacky adventures happen while they’re decorating Laurie’s house, or that something truly unexpected happens. Instead, they argue about whose decorating sense is better, then realize that as a team they work fine together. The end. For starters, the stakes of this story are so low as to be non-existent, but even within that, the lack of twists (or much else) makes you wonder why Cougar Town’s creators thought this was worthy of a few minutes of air-time. I find both characters endlessly entertaining, but this story was dead from the beginning, and it didn’t even have anything to do with the rest of the episode. It was filler, but then, when the show’s unwilling to give their relationship any sort of real drama, what else could it be?
Meanwhile, Grayson helps Andy learn how to get his way at work by “negging” his boss, which instead of functioning as a really annoying trait used by abusive men (like in real life), is treated like a magic spell that makes anyone do your bidding. Andy uses it on Ellie, and soon she’s being helpful. But then she learns it from Grayson as well, and she does it back at her husband, and the whole thing repeats itself until it goes nowhere. Cougar Town is now so happy with its status quo that it’s unwilling to shake things up (wouldn’t it be interesting if there were, say, a season where Ellie acted differently, rather than just a one-commercial break act?), so having stories end with no progress—even fake progress we never see again—has become a standard problem. Even worse, though, is that the show simply starts stories it doesn’t know what to do with. This one ends when Grayson shows up and makes an ass of himself, but that’s not much of a resolution. Instead, the story just kind of ends, which is a tactic that’s been cropping up more and more frequently as the show has continued and is almost endemic in its stories that sound interesting but are ultimately too lightweight to matter.
The big, kooky A-plot Cougar Town invested the most time in, though, was almost as big a misfire as the others. Jules and Bobby reunite as detectives (which apparently they used to do, though this is the first time we’ve ever heard about it) to solve the case of Bobby’s missing boat. All this entails, though, is harassing one of Gulfhaven’s locals for a while, then heading back to Bobby’s boat and finding that it’s still there. Suffice to say, this felt like a big waste of time, and it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the show seemed to think it was. Then there’s the big reveal at the end: Jules’ dad stole the boat thinking that the two of them were still together. It’s pathos we don’t really feel, though (not to mention that the twist was impossible not to see from a mile away, given that there was no other reason for him to appear at the beginning of the episode), and there’s no real development here. As such a peripheral character, Jules’ dad just doesn’t matter much, and while this is a sad moment, it’s not particularly deep, nor does it imbue the rest of the story with meaning.
The short version of what went wrong here would be to say that it was just three misfiring stories. But this is the result of a bigger problem, which is that Cougar Town, as of the fifth season, is afraid of shaking itself up anymore. The show is in a rut, and while there have been some excellent episodes, there’s been a general downward spiral as the show’s creators run out of ideas for what to do in a Gulfhaven essentially set in stone. Even this episode had an extraordinary moment in the Magnolia-parodying credits sequence, but the ratio of what’s interesting to what’s not is getting worse. Cougar Town feels, essentially, like the show is over, even though it keeps going, as that’s what television shows do. Episodes like “Refugee” imply that the best thing for the show would in fact be to end conclusively, as even with 13-episode seasons Cougar Town has had a hard time figuring out how to fill all that time.