Can a show ever live down a bad start? When Cougar Town began in 2009, I was among those who slammed it for its ridiculous premise, clichéd situations and overly broad humour. Then there was the name. If the first two episodes of Cougar Town didn't make you cringe, then the title with its intimations of silly, predatory women and young, dumb men, almost certainly did.
"I don't like to make excuses but we blew it when we chose the name Cougar Town," says the show's affable co-creator Bill Lawrence. "I know that there are people out there – some of them are friends of mine – who will never watch a show called Cougar Town, no matter how good it might be."
The title became so much of an albatross that the writers considered changing it. "In the second season we were going to call it The Sunshine State then ABC bought a show called Mr Sunshine so we had to go back to the original title," says Lawrence. "Now in our third season it's a badge of honour. We'll go down as having the worst show title in television history."
While the title is still awful, the show certainly isn't. Cougar Town, which has just started its third season on Sky Living, might have begun life as an unfunny comedy about a 40-year-old woman desperately dating young men, but it's become one of the sharpest ensemble pieces around – something which should come as no surprise given that Lawrence and Kevin Biegel also wrote Scrubs.
Like that show, Cougar Town veers between sharply quirky and sweetly silly as an enjoyably relaxed Courteney Cox heads up a band of mainly middle-aged wine-guzzling misfits as appealing as they are relatable. Crucially, where early episodes felt forced and deliberately wacky, these days Cougar Town might have the occasional goofy subplot (usually involving Cox's character's ex-husband, a former semi-pro golfer-turned-bum) but it always manages to pull back at just the right moment to show you that these people care about each other and more interestingly why they should.
"We realised very early on that this show didn't have the right tone and feel for Courteney," says Lawrence. "Originally, I saw it as almost an American Ab Fab, but I realised that I didn't love seeing Courteney in those situations. It's not her persona."
Thus, within four episodes of the first season, Cougar Town changed from a one-joke show about an "older" woman on the prowl into a warm-hearted, witty take on middle-aged friendship. "Really it's about how people while away their time in their forties," says Lawrence. "It's pretty close to how my wife and I spend our weekends... We think about going out but then we realise we just want to stay home, see our close friends and drink together."
Most importantly the show stopped making a punchline of the age of its female characters and instead started to celebrate fortysomething women. In the opening episodes, Cox's Jules was a vain, nervy and irritating woman, these days she is warm, witty and involved in a mature relationship.
But the show's survival is not assured. In the US it was off air for 10 months. When it started it averaged 11.5 million US viewers. This year it has drawn roughly 4.8 million.
"It's hard," Lawrence says of the break. "When you're off air for so long audiences forget. In the old days people had time to find a show, nowadays if you come out of the gates strong or weak it's impossible to change course. But you know the funny thing is critics say Cougar Town is a better show now, and that's true, but the original show, the one we hated, had higher ratings." Lawrence laughs. "Maybe we screwed up by changing it after all..."
Season 3 of 'Cougar Town' is on Fridays at 8.30pm on Sky Living