Square Eyes: Frozen Second Bananas

Ever since Mary Tyler Moore stepped out of the shadows of her TV husband Dick Van Dyke and had her own successful series, actors buried in an ensemble cast have dreamed of their own day in the sun. This week Nurse Hathaway from ER (Julianna Marguiles) and Monica Gellar-Bing from Friends (Courtney Cox) have embarked on what they hope will be several years alone in the spotlight.

Courtney Cox sashayed her way into the zeitgeist this week in alleged comedy Cougar Town  (Seven, 8:30pm Thursdays), playing Jules Cobb, a recently-divorced estate agent and mother of 17yo Travis. The ‘cougar’ in the title apparently refers to a middle-aged woman who lusts after younger men. I first heard the term on the compellingly awful Mark Phillipoussis reality dating show Age of Love, where he had to choose between ‘cougars’ and ‘kittens.’ I applaud the concept of the cougar, reclaiming territory men have stereotypically trodden on, but Courtney Cox comes across not so much as an empowered mature woman, but more a slutty old bitch.

Cox is backed up by former Scrubs star Christa Miller as happily married neighbour Ellie, and Busy Phillips as her young and hilariously clueless assistant Laurie. Cox, as Executive Producer, should have had a bit more of a say over her ‘supporting’ cast. I can understand why she wanted the swollen-faced Miller standing behind her; the Priscilla Presley-esque immobile face of the former Drew Carey Show star makes Cox’s disquietingly smooth features appear positively animated. Cox should have thought twice about getting Busy Phillips (Dawson’s Creek) on board, however. Phillips is constantly upstaging the star with her innate comic timing, and her actual youth (as opposed to surgical).

Cougar Town’s most distressing facet is the script’s constant references to plastic surgery, references being spouted by actresses who have clearly gone under the knife/needle/abrasive skin removal chemical. If it wasn’t for the fact that American television has constantly proved it is incapable of irony, I would have applauded this direction. Scripts are always written well before casting, and I can only imagine the horror when the writers realised Courtney Cox would be delivering jokes about “collagen sausage lips” through collagen sausage lips.

There are some funny moments in Cougar Town, but it is too frenetic and annoying for me to want to watch it too often. The only thing that would keep me coming back is the delightful Busy Phillips, oblivious to the fact that she is the bridesmaid more radiant than the bride. That, and the frequently shirtless Ian Gomez as Ellie’s husband Andy Torres. I have a particular penchant for short, pot-bellied bald men with an abundance of body hair.

While Cougar Town fell short of my expectations, being more obvious, shrill and crass than I could imagine, The Good Wife (Ten, 8:30pm Sundays) sidestepped them. From the frequent trailers Ten have been flooding my eyes with, I expected the Julianna Marguiles drama would be nothing more than a pre-menopausal soap opera about a woman scorned and her day-to-day struggle to raise her kids in the face of adversity. Thankfully, the plight of Marguiles’ Alicia Florrick as the burdened wife of an allegedly corrupt city official is just the continuing B-story in what is essentially a very straightforward legal drama. Florrick returns to work as a litigator after giving up her career to support her husband and raise her kids, and each week she helps some hapless client beat the system. If this show were made in the 80’s it would star Lindsay Wagner or Jaclyn Smith and be called something daft like The Lawyeress.

Marguiles has been far more fortunate than Cox when it comes to the casting of her co-stars. In ER she was far outshone by her love interest, George Clooney’s Doug Ross, but here, apart from some occasional prison-based scenes with Chris Noth (Law and Order, Sex and the City) as her indicted husband,  Marguiles spends most of her time with perennial second bananas Josh Charles (In Treatment, Sportsnight) and Christine Baranski (Mamma Mia!, Cybill). The only challenge to her understated star power is Bend it Like Beckham’s Archie Panjabi as private investigator Kalinda Sharma, the pair forming a kind of judicial double act, like a legal Laverne and Shirley.

Both shows are primarily concerned with desperate ex-housewives. Where attorney Alicia Florrick leads a life of quiet desperation, trying to keep her head held high through adversity, estate agent Jules Cobb is desperate to throw off any semblance of dignity and swim about in smutty jokes, while wearing a bikini. Courtney Cox seems embarrassed by her character’s behaviour, far from the assured and subtle sluttiness of her progenitor, the original tv cougar, Blanche Deveraux (Rue McLanahan) from The Golden Girls. Thank you for being a friend, indeed.