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Cougar Town - A crude look at an age-old question

Courteney Cox played an eternal teenager in Friends. Now she's playing a forty-something single woman, but, says Sarah Hughes, she is just as unbelievable – and it does older women no favours

What's funnier than jokes about 40-year-old women desperately trying to stay young? If you believe the writers of Cougar Town, the new US comedy staring Courteney Cox which starts on Living this March, the answer is jokes about 40-year-old women desperately trying to stay young and hoping against hope that they'll manage to have sex if they just try hard enough.

"We're 40, Laurie," Cox's character, neurotic divorcée Jules, announces at one point. "For us getting ready for sex is like prepping for a space mission." Cue laughter.

Or, rather, not, for if there's a worse comedy than Cougar Town on television right now, then I've yet to find it. Not even dire Charlie Sheen sitcom Two and a Half Men manages to plumb the depths that Cougar Town readily mines.

In the first episode alone there are jokes about eating disorders – Cox's character, Jules, takes a tiny bite of a bagel before announcing that she won't eat another thing for the rest of the day in order to ensure her stomach stays flat; jokes about wrinkles – Jules explains to her neighbour that she's wearing full make-up at dawn so that the younger man in her bed doesn't see her "morning face"; and jokes about C-section scars – Jules jokingly pretends hers is the result of a knife attack before fessing up with a cutely embarrassed giggle.

And that's all before we get to the biggest problem of all: Jules's age. Given the amount of jokes about ageing, about feelings of inadequacy in bed and fears concerning wrinkles and weight, you'd think that Cox's slim, trim Jules was in her mid-50s at the very least. She's 40.

Think about that – when Steve Carroll's eponymous hero in the hit comedy The 40-year-old Virgin hasn't had sex it's funny, yes, but it's also viewed as something rather sweet and swiftly fixed. By contrast, Cox is potentially over the hill at 40. The constant fear running throughout the show, the terrifying humming noise in the background, is that Jules May Never Have Sex Again. Why? Because of her great age. She's too old for sexual intercourse. At 40.

It's an implausible idea and one that leaves a faintly unpleasant taste in the mouth, a taste that's made worse by the casting of Cox herself. As Joanna Weiss wrote in The Boston Globe when the show started in the US: "Cox is a funny TV presence with self-deprecating charm, but she's not an Everywoman and she's certainly not a stand-in for a population of women that is experiencing the aging process in real time."

And in a show such as Cougar Town that's a problem: if we were already finding it hard to go along with the central conceit that Jules is over the hill at the age of 40, we can't help but struggle to believe that the toned, burnished and buffed Ms Cox, who looks closer to her mid-20s than her mid-40s, is unable to keep a man by her slimline side.

Yet, for all these qualms, it's not impossible to imagine that a show featuring all of the above could still manage to be funny. It's just about feasible that in the right hands Cougar Town might prove to be a witty, acerbic look at the depths to which women are prepared to go to find love and a commentary on just what's wrong with a society that refuses to allow said women to age either gracefully or naturally.

Unfortunately Cougar Town's writers, Bill Lawrence (who created the long-running medical comedy Scrubs) and Kevin Biegel have no interest in subtlety, preferring to go for the cheap sight gag, the crude double entendre or the obviously telegraphed punchline, time after time.

Fans of the show – and there are a surprising number, as it averages around eight million viewers a week in the US and has been picked up for a second season – would argue that there is a danger in reading too much into what is, after all, a 30-minute sitcom. It's funny, this argument goes; Cox works hard, if frantically, and there's a strong supporting cast including the ever-watchable Busy Philipps as the hard-partying Laurie, and Brian Van Holt, who steals every scene he's in as Jules's laid-back bum of an ex-husband. Some of the issues surrounding our society's differing attitudes towards men and women are addressed (broadly) in Jules's "friendship" with her neighbour and fellow forty-something divorcé Grayson, while her relationship with her awkward teenage son is mined effectively for laughs, albeit in a manner that is, as Weiss remarked in The Boston Globe, "sometimes kind of creepy".

But for all of the occasional chuckles raised by Lawrence and Biegel's deliberately cartoon-ish world, it's hard to ignore the fact that Cox and her supporting cast are playing child-women, arrested adolescents still stuck in the "does he fancy me?" rhythms of high school, concerned only with how they look and terrified that all their accomplishments will instantly melt away if they can't find themselves a man. It's as though the two writers had decided to ignore the many strong single women on television right now, from Tina Fey's acerbic Liz Lemon in 30 Rock to Julia Louis-Dreyfus's wittily resigned Christine in The New Adventures of Old Christine, and instead created a show based around Teri Hatcher's simpering Susan, the most Desperate of all the Housewives and then compounded their sin by giving her two equally nauseating friends.

At least Cougar Town's most obvious predecessor, Sex and the City, had the occasional zinger hidden away amid all the self-obsession. You might not have liked or identified with Carrie and co, but they had a semblance of maturity. Miranda held down a genuinely high-flying job, and even managed to compete with men on her own terms, Carrie valued her independence and life in the city she loved as much if not more than the Mr Bigs who passed through it, while Samantha would never have demeaned herself by worrying about levels of attraction – she presumed she was sexy and that men would fall swiftly in line.

Even Charlotte, the most conventional of the foursome, the immaculately turned-out one who played by The Rules, would never have found herself exclaiming, as Jules does after running through a fountain: "I spent so much time on my hair this morning. That felt like cheating death".

Not least because it isn't actually funny. But it's not just Cox and co's desperation that makes them so unappealing. After all, we've seen desperate women before: our own Bridget Jones defined life in terms of calories and catching men, but, at least in her case that desperation was leavened by the occasional down-to-earth acknowledgement that her actions were verging on the insane. Like Lawrence and Biegel, and indeed the writers of Sex and the City, Jones's creator, Helen Fielding, asked us to laugh at Bridget as much as with her. The difference is that she did so with a warmth and affection that is entirely lacking in Cougar Town.

And this is Cougar Town's greatest problem. Behind the pretence that we should all identify with Jules, this woman on the verge of menopausal breakdown, lurks a much nastier emotion. "Look at this woman," the show says, "look how she has injected herself with Botox and dieted herself into the jeans of her early 20s, look how much energy she has expended to stay youthful looking and thin and look also at what good it has done her: she is divorced and confused and unhappy and concerned that she's no good in bed. Look at her downing shots and prowling round bars and picking up ever younger men, watch how she and her friends fear their grey hairs or their odd wrinkle, see how they starve themselves and compete to stay thin. Isn't it, all of it, incredibly funny?"

The only sane answer is, "no, honestly, it's not".

'Cougar Town' starts on 30 March at 9pm on Living TV