by Meredith O’Brien
They both have long brown hair that’s got a killer shine. They’re petite and wear fashionable, form fitting attire. Both are divorced and have one child. They’re working mothers who are insecure about the dating scene, and lack confidence in themselves and in their appeal to the opposite sex despite the fact that they’re attractive. They are two fictional portrayals of divorced fortysomething women who serve as focal points for two half-hour comedies on major TV networks. The actresses portraying these divorcees are veterans of long-standing, beloved 1990s sitcoms.
That’s where the similarities end. Whereas one character is kooky, self deprecating, relatable and funny, I find the other to be not at all relatable and more than a bit sad to watch. The characters in question: Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Emmy-winning Christine Campbell from The New Adventures of Old Christine  and Courteney Cox’s Jules Cobb from the new show Cougar Town . Unfortunately for Cox, whose show just premiered  on ABC, I had a very negative reaction to Cougar Town, while I really enjoy Old Christine’s season five opener.
Why, I wondered, was I so put off by Cougar Town? Well, there’s its name, Cougar Town. I’ve read all about how single fortysomething women are trying to “take back” the phrase “cougar” – used to describe predatory older women preying on younger men – and make it a positive thing, a rallying cry of sorts for women to re-assert their strength through their sexuality, kind of like the confident Samantha Jones from Sex and the City. But on Cougar Town, Jules Cobb is nothing like Samantha Jones.
In the first moments of Cougar Town, viewers are treated to a scene which featured Jules examining herself in the mirror, shaking her stomach, lifting up the skin on her face and assessing her upper arms for waddles. Not long thereafter, Jules flashed a teenaged boy while wearing a bra and tiny panties looking smokin’ hot with nary a bulge, waddle or cellulite evident anywhere. Later, when bedding a twentysomething, Jules was again in a bra and panties and looked like she had the body of a much younger woman, more svelte than that of her twentysomething female sidekick. So the whole “hey I can relate to you because my body is aging too” shtick seemed like baloney.
Then there was the high pathetic quotient on Cougar Town. Jules’ business associate at her real estate company made lawn signs bearing Jules’ picture in which Jules is wearing a low-cut blouse and is leaning forward to display her cleavage. Middle school aged boys later stole the sexy signs and used them as a visual aide for their own self-pleasure. In one scene, Jules and her associate Laurie chased a boy who took a sign and tracked him to his bedroom, which was covered with dozens of purloined images of Jules’ boobs. Jules then delivered a monologue to this boy about how hard it is to find men her age to date because they’re all dating younger women and how she just can’t live her life cooped up in the house no matter how embarrassing it is to her son that she has a personal life. It wasn’t funny. I cringed. “This had to have been written by a man,” I thought.
While Christine is pathetic too, her desperation doesn’t usually come off as anti-Christine, or in a way that ridicules her for who she is, a divorced single mom. The whole premise of Old Christine was, after all, that her ex-husband was dating a “new,” much younger version of Christine. But the way in which the show’s storylines have unfolded over several seasons – in completely awkward and sometimes crass ways – didn’t seem to exploit Christine. When she tried to pick up men in a grocery store  in the first season, for example, she was funny and awkward in a charming, oddball way, where her oddness is oftentimes mirrored by the weirdness of all the characters around her. It’s like Christine’s channeling an over-caffeinated version of an Everywoman via a Lucille Ball persona. A key element that makes it work is that all of Christine’s peculiar ways aren’t solely channeled toward gettin’ some from a younger guy. By contrast, Jules, at least in the pilot episode, appeared to be a cardboard caricature who’s complaining about her body when she has an enviable figure while she’s landing a cute twentysomething guy on her first night out at a bar and lecturing middle school kids about how hard it is to date when you’re a fortysomething woman.
This got me thinking about other depictions of divorced mothers in their late 30s and 40s on TV right now and how they fare by comparison. There’s Sarah Walker (played by Rachel Griffiths) from the drama Brothers & Sisters . She got divorced in the show’s second season and started dating men roughly around her age – though she flirted with a younger man -- but the businesswoman hasn’t been portrayed as ridiculous when it comes to her love life, even when she’s telling her sister that she really needs to “get some.” Over on the dramedy Private Practice , you’ve got Naomi Bennett (Audrea McDonald) who’s divorced from her husband Sam, her partner in a medical practice, and they share custody of their teenaged daughter. She’s dated various men, is extremely attractive and openly talks about her sex life, but there’s not a pathetic bone in Naomi’s body. The closest character to Cox’s Jules appears on the dramedy Desperate Housewives in the form of children’s book illustrator Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), who’s depicted as flighty and somewhat pathetic and needy, almost as if the Cougar Town writers modeled Jules after Susan and kicked up the sex part. (Susan, by the way, is my least favorite Desperate Housewife. Actually, she was tied with another now-gone desperate unlikeable character, Edie Britt, another divorced, fortysomething mother focused on sleeping around.)
I’m not blaming Cox for the unlikeable nature of the pilot episode. Even she seems ambivalent about her show’s title, telling Jimmy Kimmel  that she’s uncertain whether the word “cougar” should be considered an insult or not. But when I see the Cougar Town web site offering a satirical “On the Prowl” section where a known “cougar” answers women’s questions about dating younger men and I think about that scene where a stick-thin woman is upset over the condition of her body, I come to the conclusion that this is a man’s perspective of a woman’s life. And that man doesn’t get it. Maybe subsequent episodes of Cougar Town will improve, will be funny, will provide some satirical send-ups of the fortysomething dating scene, but I’m not going to be there to watch them. What do I want to see? Someone lovable, like Christine, and then I’ll stick around.
What do you think of the portrayal of divorced moms in their late 30s and 40s on TV?
Also on Mommy Tracked: When Cougars Hurt Their Cubs