'Cougar Town' star, Lexington native Josh Hopkins has Cats on the brain

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comJanuary 11, 2013 

Actor and Lexington native Josh Hopkins is known for infusing some Big Blue touches into his TV comedy, Cougar Town, which made its Season 4 debut last week on a new network.

His character, Grayson Ellis, pays homage to Hopkins' beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats by wearing the occasional team T-shirt, or doing a version of former player John Wall's victory dance or random three-point "goggles."

And even as the show has found a new home — moving to cable's TBS from ABC, the broadcast network where it had aired since its debut in 2009 — Hopkins is up to his old tricks.

"This year, our (UK players') signature has been the flattop, and that is hard to integrate" into a sitcom plot, he said of the haircut sported by some of the Wildcats.

Still, he said during an interview with the Herald-Leader, sometimes when everyone is supposed to be quiet on the set, "I'll just start saying Nerlens Noel, Nerlens Noel, Nerlens Noel. ... I don't know if it will make it in the show."

Well, that's one reason for Cats fans to keep watching.

Other reasons to tune in? Let's ask the critics.

In his review of Tuesday's season premiere, Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times opined that the show has a "fantastic charge to the humor." The New York Times' Neil Genzlinger wrote that it's "an eclectic comedy that is smarter than mainstream fare like Last Man Standing but still feels like comfort food." He went on to call Cougar Town "one of TV's more underappreciated sitcoms." (On the other hand, Hank Steuver of The Washington Post, wrote, "If there's a petition to put poor Cougar Town out of its misery, I'll sign it." Ouch.)

Another reason: Despite being on a new network, little has changed about Cougar Town.

Returning is the entire crew from the Florida cul-de-sac where the series is set, along with the "penny can" game, the pooch named Dog Travis and antics including group votes on such things as changing the meanings of words. (On an episode last season, for instance, the phrase "fat chance" was changed to mean "yes, a sure thing" — at least in the world of Cougar Town.)

The show, left in limbo before the third season and then shuffled around ABC's schedule, has been picked up for 15 episodes on TBS and is being promoted heavily.

The move to cable offers a little more freedom for the eclectic ensemble cast, which includes Courteney Cox as Jules, the central character and Grayson's new wife. Joining them are friends and relations played by Busy Philipps, Christa Miller, Ian Gomez, Brian Van Holt and Dan Byrd.

Part of that freedom is that the characters may use swear words now. In fact, for Tuesday's premiere, the rotating tagline below the show's title during the opening credits, a running gag on the show, said: "Can we curse on TV now?"

Although Hopkins said there hasn't been a rash of bad language, "we can be a bit more raunchy."

That includes more scenes of a bare-chested Hopkins and a episode about Jules and Grayson having a "naked day" to enliven their marriage.

That newlywed relationship between Jules and Grayson will be a point of exploration this season, Hopkins said. Mostly that will come in how the couple, like most just-marrieds, make it all work.

Hopkins points out a interesting new dynamic: Now that Grayson is Jules' husband and not her neighbor, he "has nowhere to go. He can't escape to his own house."

That could lead to the need for more of a staple on the show: wine.

Although the fictional drinking is plentiful, Hopkins said, on the set the actors usually have grape juice ("too sweet") or nonalcoholic wine ("just disgusting").

Sometimes, he said, at the end of a long day of shooting there might be something with a little kick in the long-stemmed glasses.

"But," he said, "that's only when we don't have too much dialogue left. "We tend to get a little rambunctious."

Asked whether Grayson and the crew might ever indulge in some harder stuff and have a Kentucky bourbon-soaked adventure, Hopkins laughed. Probably not, he said, because that would result in risque antics more suited for premium cable.

As for upcoming episodes, he said, they blur together in the production process, which he completed before coming home to Lexington for Christmas.

"There is one episode where Travis is trying to be a player and Grayson is trying to teach him to be a player," Hopkins said of Byrd's character, Jules' son, Travis.

There is also an episode where all the cul-de-sac men grow mustaches, which leads the bar Grayson runs to attract a large gay following. "I try to bridge the gap between gay and straight," he said.

As for rumors that Hopkins, 42, and Cox, 48, are romantically involved, he defers to what Cox told Conan O'Brien last week on his TBS late-night talk show:

It's a fake romance all for the benefit of Hopkins' father, former U.S. Rep. Larry Hopkins of Lexington.

"He has this fantasy that we are going to get married and come to live in Lexington," Hopkins said. So he and Cox give his father the odd glimmer of hope by posing adoringly when the paparazzi come around, Hopkins said.

As for Hopkins — who in his nearly 20 years in Hollywood has had his share of shows that did not stick around for long, including Swingtown, Vanished and Pepper Dennis — he will continue to be thankful to have a good job and be especially glad to be a part of the Big Blue Nation.

He's no fair-weather fan.

"I try always to at least adopt a freshman that I really like," he said.

This year it's guard Archie Goodwin, the guard from Arkansas who tends to vacillate between being a scoring machine and being out of control.

"I just want to hold him and tell him that it is going to be OK," said Hopkins before saying good-bye with these fitting words for the Wildcat faithful: "Go Cats."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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