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‘Cougar Town’: Barb And The Art Of Batting A Thousand

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
February 14, 2012

After having been absent from the schedule for almost nine months, Cougar Town returns tonight to kick off its third season at 8:30 on ABC. To reiterate, because it cannot be repeated enough: Yes, the title is terrible. No, it is not a show about Courteney Cox having sex with younger men. Once you accept as true these two facts, it is easier to accept a third: It would be nice if more people were watching this show.

If you’re not already watching, you’ll probably need some reasons. Here are a few: It was co-created and is overseen by Bill Lawrence, who previously brought us Scrubs. (You loved Scrubs.) It’s arguably a better (and less shrill) showcase for Cox’s comedic penchant for bossy agitation than Friends was. It’s about adult friends working overtime to do little but amuse each other and as a result is one of those extremely rare television series that more often than not plays like a documentary of the actors having buckets o’ fun making the show.

And it has Barb. As played by Carolyn Hennesy, she’s one of those details that shows just how thoroughly the writers have thought through the universe that they’ve created. At first blush, Barb appears to be everything I just told you that Cougar Town isn’t. She is awful. She is predatory, with young men specifically. She louchely bulldozes the personal boundaries of others. She speaks almost exclusively in off-putting, boastful innuendo.

On closer inspection, though, Barb is a rare breed in the world of sitcoms: a character who bats 1.000. She swans in to the scene at the most awkward possible moment like a one-woman Lenny & Squiggy (“Hello!”), kills with just a handful of lines and then swans back out, leaving the rest of the characters feeling like they need a shower.

The patron saint of this type of character is barfly Al from Cheers (a.k.a. “the man who said ‘Sinatra’”). When Al Rosen, who portrayed him, died in 1990, folks affiliated with the show lamented his loss by pointing out that he was the only actor on the show with a perfect batting average. Other actors may have gotten more lines and screen time, but nobody else got a guaranteed laugh every single time they spoke.

It’s a tough type of character to pull off properly, and most shows won’t try it. Not only do actor-availability logistics get in the way – you’re essentially talking about making someone a semi-regular but only bringing them in sporadically and for a single line of dialogue – but there’s always the risk that the producers fall in love the character so much that they begin fleshing him or her out. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; The Simpsons (probably the all-time champion in this department) has pulled it off with folks like Professor Frink and Groundskeeper Willie. But that’s a fundamental change that trades hit rate for increased narrative richness.

Considering the show’s pedigree, it’s not surprising to see another perfect scorer on Cougar Town. Scrubs had a deep, varied bench of tertiary characters who could be counted on to hit a home run and then not linger. Unlike Scrubs, though, Cougar Town sticks pretty tightly to its core cast. It’s a show almost exclusively of primary and secondary characters.

In fact, Barb started out as one of the latter, substantial enough to be at the heart of some very early subplots (including one where she was a cross between Norma Desmond, the bride of Frankenstein and Jack Nicholson’s Joker). Somewhere along the way, though, as Cougar Town was in the familiar process of discovering what it does best and scuttling everything else, she became like every supporting player on Scrubs compressed into one. She’s not a member of the cul-de-sac crew, and unlike creepy sad-sack neighbor Tom, she’s not around enough to become a de facto auxiliary.

If that seems like a demotion for Hennesy, there are compensating benefits to playing a character who exists without an ounce of fat. Every Barb appearance is surefire comedy gold, to the extent that her mere arrival on the scene is now enough to make me laugh in anticipation of whatever squirm-inducing thing she’s about to unleash on the main cast.

Of course, I understand the risks of just having praised at length a character who is essentially the last vestiges of the idea that people have about the horribly-titled show called Cougar Town that was never really accurate in the first place. In a way, Barb is sort of a winking meta-cautionary tale about the road that the show could have taken but didn’t.

But Barb is no more representative of what Cougar Town is all about than Disco Stu is of The Simpsons. There’s an entire universe of which she is just one small corner. And like Al from Cheers, she’s earned her place because she gets a hit every time she steps up to the plate. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

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