Screen: TBS

Cougar Town Brings Us A New Shade Of Ellie

It's hard to believe, but when the situation requires it, Ellie can actually be...charming. And the strain of it just makes Tara love her more.

Since my most immovable crackpot theory with regard to sitcoms is that they almost never need any kind of high-concept premise in order to work, I'm pleased that the current fifth season of Cougar Town has stuck with what's worked all along ("all along" meaning, of course, since producers dropped the idea that probably sold the show: Courteney Cox playing a newly divorced fortysomething dating much younger dudes). Other than the fact that Laurie and Travis are dating now, everything's basically the same: Andy and Bobby are still in non-carnal love — I mean, non-carnal as far as we love, though they did ramp up to hand-holding this week. Tom is still too creepy for full membership in the Cul-de-Sac Crew. Grayson is still flummoxed by everyone around him. Jules is still a functional alcoholic — which we can tell because the wine seems to be killing brain cells at a faster rate these days. And Ellie is still really mean. But this season's episodes seem to suggest how much more there may be to her.

In the latest episode, Andy — in his capacity as mayor of Gulfhaven — is presiding over Buccaneer Week, a pirate-themed event intended to goose local tourism. (By the way, I love the torque Ian Gomez put on it every time he had to utter the phrase "Buccaneer Week," which was a lot, and sounded EVERY TIME like "fuckin' ear week.") In order to help make sure the event is a success, he's going to need help from a rarely seen compatriot: Charming Ellie.

That this Ellie alter ego is Charming and not merely Nice is an important distinction: Andy needs her to chat up town socialites to drum up support, which means not just tolerating dunces who may cross her path, but actively making overtures to people for whom she would normally have no use. Hilariously, Ellie is great at this, credibly buttering up the aging bimbos of the sort that people think this show is actually about and being a legitimate partner in Andy's political career. Is she doing this in part to preserve Andy's position in office and thus maintain her right to walk around the town's outdoor malls with her wineglass? Sure. But still!

The secret existence of Charming Ellie (or "Chellie," as an enthralled Jules calls her) comes on the heels of our first encounter with another of Ellie's little-seen identities: Lawyer Ellie. Pressed into service to help Bobby get visitation rights to Dog Travis's puppies (and yes, I realize how crazy this makes the show sound when it's all written out like that), Ellie busts out her old suit and relishes the chance to dominate a stranger with her sharp legal mind. It doesn't work out exactly as she had expected, but it's still fun to get a glimpse at the Ellie who existed pre-marriage and pre-Stan, when she was able to use her nastiness for professional advancement and financial gain.

As much as I love Standard Jerk Ellie — and I obviously do — I'm also enjoying these efforts to round out her character and show her in different contexts and moods. If Ellie were a real person, who is effectively retired from what had been a high-status, high-pressure job, this is probably around the point where spending her time in complete idleness while a full-time nanny looks after her (thankfully) mostly offscreen child might be starting to get old; reviving different identities would be a way for her to break up the monotony of her days. And while I'm not saying I would like to see Ellie undergoing a Winston Bishop-esque series of brand-new character quirks, I will be happy if the rest of this season lets us see more opportunities for Ellie to play-act for our amusement.

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