Sometimes when a series stumbles, it's hard to know whether it's the show or the flow.
What's not in doubt is that ABC's Cougar Town (Tuesday, 8:30 ET/PT) fell and fell hard last Tuesday in its much-delayed seasonal return. Handed 7.6 million viewers by its Last Man Standing (Tuesday, 8 ET/PT) lead-in, Town lost about a third of them, tumbling below the 5 million-viewer mark. No matter how hard ABC tries to slice those numbers (It had the best retention among 18- to 34-year-old, left-handed dog-owners of any show since January!), they're too small for renewal comfort.
Some might say that's what happens when a network bounces, reduces and delays a series in the way ABC has Cougar Town. You keep telling viewers that they needn't bother to watch a show, they eventually take the hint.
To be fair, some of the blame goes to the show itself. Town has a great cast, an amusingly eccentric group of characters and a good sense of how far nasty quips can be taken — but it's a defiantly mannered comedy in a medium that seldom rewards that kind of absurdist detachment with mass appeal.
Still, you also have to wonder what ABC was expecting when it paired shows as far apart in tone and approach as Man and Town.Man has Tim Allen's husband and father railing against society's assaults on masculinity; Town celebrates a world where the women, led by Courteney Cox, are largely in charge.
Town tries to separate its star from the role that made her famous; Man embraces its comparison. Town is almost aggressively modern; Man is an unrepentant throwback. Last week's Man had the boys sneaking Tony Stewart's race car out for a ride, a plot that bypasses Home Improvement and heads straight back to Here's Lucy.
Don't get me wrong, both styles have their place on TV. That place, however, probably isn't right next to each other.
Not that figuring out a compatible sitcom schedule is easy, mind you. NBC tried for decades to fill the in-between spots in its "Must See TV" Thursday lineup, cycling through such much disdained losers as The Single Guy, Union Square, Cursed, Inside Schwartz and Coupling. It got so bad, NBC just gave up and shoved The Apprentice into the mix, which may just have been the worst scheduling decision in the history of television.
Even when the networks get a schedule right, they tend not to keep it in place. Many people remember CBS' 1973 Saturday lineup —All in the Family, MASH, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show and The Carol Burnett Show— as being TV's all-time best. What many don't remember is the lineup only lasted one year.
Though you might not have thought so, it turns out that it's also possible to have a lineup that flows together too well — as CBS spends each Monday proving with a four-comedy combo of excessively sexualized sitcoms. Individually, each show can be funny, even if the jokes can be too nail-on-the-vulgar-head obvious. Collectively, however, you end up with a snickering single-entendre overload.
What viewers need is a happy medium. What Cougar Town needs is a better, more compatible lead-in.
Much as we might wish otherwise, chances are neither need is going to be met.