A Super-Showrunner and His Shows
Bill Lawrence Appreciation Part 2, The Interim
After Scrubs closed up shop, Lawrence spent the next decade dealing with various projects that gave diminishing returns — in terms of audience and time on the air, that is. In terms of quality, each was original and definitely not Scrubs in a different world.
In the fall of 2009, Lawrence created one of the most entertaining series with one of the worst titles in history. Cougar Town featured the life of Jules Cobb, played by Courtney Cox and her teenage son living in Florida. It dealt with the relationship of her with two very different women Ellie (Christa Miller again, barely tweaking her work on Scrubs at all) and her real estate manager Laurie (Busy Philipps in the process of moving from teenage idol to all out superstar) Also involved were her ex-husband Bobby and her eventual new husband Grayson, who was a quite bit younger than her. (Contrary to belief, the title had to with a sport team in the area. Lawrence knew how awful the name was and spent much of the opening credits eventually mocking the name.)
This was a funny and more sexual show that Lawrence’s other series, which may have been the reason it never really gelled on ABC’s Wednesday night lineup which feature the modern classic Modern Family and another tremendously underrated show The Middle, both of which would be critical and popular hits for most of the 2010s. Cougar Town understandably didn’t fit in the same way, which is probably why ABC reluctantly cancelled it in the spring of 2012. But just as Scrubs had been saved by ABC in 2008, TBS — a cable network gradually investing in original programming brought it on their schedule that year. It managed to run another three seasons, more to critical than popular devotion. It was quite a pity, because there was real humor in this show. And Cox and Phillips have done some of their best work on this medium (even though, like with Scrubs, the Emmys ignored it).
In the middle of Cougar Town’s run, Lawrence had enough traction so that he developed his next original series Ground Floor. In many ways, this was the most traditional of Lawrence’s series. (It even had a laugh track that Scrubs and Cougar Town pointedly went without.) It didn’t make it any less ambitious though. The series dealt with the relationship between Brody (Skylar Astin’s breakout role) a successful banker who falls in a love who works in the building’s maintenance department. It sounds a little conventional (there’s a lot of nineties rom-coms based on just this formula) except that Lawrence, keeping up with his tradition, populated the series with lots of fascinating background characters. In the maintenance department, there was Harvard, the least educated man you imagine. Brody’s rival on the top floor was Threepeat, like him just without a sole. And John C. MicGinley gladly returned to the world of Lawrence as Mr. Mansfield, Brody’s mentor who actually a bit more of a soul than he was allowed to show in Scrubs. (He was even willing to mock himself.) It was closer to the model of a sitcom that Lawrence had once memorably parodied on Scrubs but there were often engaging moments, and McGinley once again had some of the biggest laughs. But TBS never had enough confidence in it, and it was cancelled after two seasons.
Lawrence’s last major work in the next few years was one of his most daring series. Life Sentence on the CW was a dramedy that had one of the most radical setup for any series, even in the new Golden Age. Lucy Hale was a twentyish woman who has spent the last six years dealing with a diagnosis of cancer. Her family has done everything in their power to make her life enjoyable, including arranging for her dying wish to go to Paris, where she got married on an impulse. The series opens with her preparing for her funeral — and then finding out that her cancer is in remission. With no idea what to do next, she soon find out that her family has spent the last few years completely papering over all of their crises — her parents marriage is about to end, her brother is going through another failed relationship, and the family is nearly broke due to the efforts to support their daughter. The series is about her efforts to try and restart her life.
This was an ambitious idea — certainly far too ambitious for the CW, which had spent the last few years advancing into a world of edgy comic book franchises. And the truth is, it had a far more interesting premise than it did in actual execution. Nevertheless, I still regard it as one of the more fascinating failures of the past decade. Sometimes, I wonder why the network — which had a habit of renewing all of its shows, including lesser success stories like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin en masse — just refused to go along with this one. Maybe Lucy Hale and the CW just never mixed — a couple of years later, she would be the lead on Katy Keene, a Riverdale spinoff that was much more cheerful that had more going for it but would still be cancelled after just one season.
That would be Lawrence’s last project until Ted Lasso. Tomorrow I’ll wrap it up with a brief summary of why it’s quintessential Lawrence and yet different from anything he’s ever done.