Okay, ABC, we get it. As you see it, the charm in your Tuesday night flagship sitcom, Cougar Town, lies in its irreverence. Granted: the characters are narcissistic, shallow, self-destructive parodies of “real housewives”; the sexual themes are unrelenting and occasionally disturbing; and the storylines go from flippant to sincere in the disorienting frenzy of the allotted half hour. You can call it charming if you like. We call it overdone and gimmicky. Tomato, tomahto.

The undeserved and seemingly unsolicited Season 3 premiere of Cougar Town features anti-heroine Jules (Courteney Cox) trying to prove to her recalcitrant friends that she is not becoming predictable, and still enjoys spontaneity. She tells boy-toy Grayson (Josh Hopkins) that she wants to be constantly surprised by their relationship, and this theme dominates the episode, leading up to the altogether predictable ending of Grayson getting down on one knee to pop the question. The irony seems lost on ABC and the “cougars” alike.

Meanwhile, the show’s supporting characters prove just as frenetic, one-dimensional, and desperate as ever — partly due to the writers’ seeming reluctance to give them decent storylines, and partly due to the culture of overacting that is obviously endorsed by the program. It’s hard to tell, at times, if Ellie (Christa Miller), Andy (Ian Gomez), Bobby (Brian Van Holt), and — above all — Laurie (Busy Philipps) have actually become less sympathetic as the seasons have unfolded, or if too much of a bad thing has simply morphed into a worse thing.

The most tolerable character remains Travis (Dan Byrd), Jules’ college-aged son, whose likability is directly proportional to the extent he attempts to distance himself from his mom’s group of unscrupulous misfit friends. He is the closest thing the show has to a much-needed straight man who could potentially help absorb everyone else’s kookiness and perhaps even lend a shade of subtle humor. As it stands now, the performers hand this role off like a relay baton, leading to viewer frustration and character inconsistencies.

Of course, all these minor details could be forgiven if Cougar Town was actually funny. The entire half-hour premiere barely inspired a chuckle, and any humor that could have been promising was sacrificed to over-the-top delivery. On the surface, there’s no reason why Cougar Town shouldn’t be funny. There is actually something helplessly endearing about a show that makes fun of its characters, its premise, and a cultural phenomenon that “celebrates” the image-obsessed, entitled, semi-wealthy mature woman. Cougar Town, however, fails to capture the kind of tongue-in-cheek absurdity that periodically makes us check in on Atlanta and Orange County. Perhaps something that already so thoroughly makes fun of itself need not be parodied.

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