Commentary: 'Cougar Town' has been shafted

COUGAR TOWN - ABC's "Cougar Town" stars Busy Philipps as Laurie, Josh Hopkins as Grayson, Courteney Cox as Jules, Brian Van Holt as Bobby, Ian Gomez as Andy, Christa Miller as Ellie and Dan Byrd as Travis. (ABC/BOB D'AMICO)
COUGAR TOWN - ABC's "Cougar Town" stars Busy Philipps as Laurie, Josh Hopkins as Grayson, Courteney Cox as Jules, Brian Van Holt as Bobby, Ian Gomez as Andy, Christa Miller as Ellie and Dan Byrd as Travis. (ABC/BOB D'AMICO) ABC

PASADENA, Calif. — ABC announced that Cougar Town would return this past fall, then scrapped that plan, slashed the show's order from 22 to 15 episodes and gave it a vague sometime-and-somewhere March return date because it's got one of its best episodes ever coming up and "we love the show," which co-stars Lexington native Josh Hopkins, ABC programming chief Paul Lee told TV critics Tuesday at the Winter TV Press Tour 2012.

It seemed a little thin to TV critics who, about 12 hours earlier, were whipped into a lather by Cougar Town creator Bill Lawrence at an open-bar news conference about ABC's having had the crust to put on a lousy show such as Work It while leaving Cougar Town hanging.

"Good morning. So what did you think of Work It?" Lee, asked, egging on the critics as he walked on stage first thing the next morning.

"I think Cougar Town is great," Lee insisted when one of the critics asked sternly, "What kind of message are you sending out about the network's support and commitment" to the Courteney Cox comedy.

"I love Bill," Lee said. "I used to be a pirate when I was a show runner, and I'm now kind of the Navy, and he does such a great sort of pirate job of getting his audiences excited, and that helps us, too."

Lee said he always tells his show runners to take a page from the Bill Lawrence Pirate Book of Self-Promotion and Press Management because he does such a great job of getting people whipped up over his shows.

Lawrence is the same guy who created and produced Scrubs, about which he confided to TV critics that he was getting jerked around by NBC, for seven years.

The night before Lee's Q and A, Lawrence picked up the tab at the conference hotel bar. As critics drank liquor, sipped champagne and nibbled finger food, Lawrence groused about Courage Town's fate and handed out sizzle reels.

As the critics drank more and grew hotter about the whole matter, they began to urge Lawrence to stick it to The Man: Go to cable!

"I like my job. They don't pay s--- in cable," responded Lawrence, who noted that broadcast pays "the premium dough."

"There is no Shangri-La, man!" Lawrence said, adding that ABC is the best partner he's ever had.

Well, then, critics said helpfully, stick it to The Man and take your comedy straight to the Web!

"You're tapping into a conversation I have had with my wife," he said. Unfortunately, he continued, she likes to buy expensive clothes. (His wife, Christa Miller, is one of the stars of Cougar Town and was also in the cast of Scrubs.)

Gee, Bill Lawrence's life sure is tough!

By the end of the open-bar news conference, TV critics were of a single mind: Cougar Town has been shafted because Lee doesn't like it. Instead, critics decided, Lee prefers a stupid sitcom about cross-dressing guys because Lee's a Brit, and Brits love shows about men in drag, the uglier the better.

Lee insisted Tuesday that he thought there was room on ABC's schedule for "a very, very silly show" such as Work It. TV critics exchanged meaningful glances.

And Lee said he did not "get" the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's backlash over the sitcom, which is about two men who dress as women to get jobs.

"I didn't really get it. I love Tootsie. I don't find it to be offensive," Lee said, adding: "So in that particular case, I didn't get it. But that's probably me."

To recap: To Lee, Work It is Tootsie.

Ratings for Work It have been higher than TV critics expected but "lower than was perfect for a pickup," said Lee, who added that he'll wait to see its ratings over the next few weeks.

When not professing his love for Cougar Town, Lee discussed the disappearance of the word for female canines from two of his show titles: Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 and G.C.B., which co-stars Franklin native Annie Potts. The latter title, Lee insisted, "officially stands for 'Good Christian Belles,' you know," even though the popular book on which the show is based is Good Christian Bitches.

"On broadcast, it turns out, it's not a word that you want to use in the title," joked Lee, who most recently was head of programming at the cable network ABC Family and, before that, at cable's BBC America.

Lee insisted that it was "sort of by chance that we have two" such titles. But, he noted happily, ABC is spreading out its launches over a couple of months.

"I didn't want to do my trilogy," he quipped.

Also gone is the crucifix-over-cleavage promo for the Dallas-set G.C.B. that critics saw earlier this season. Lee said that's because focus groups said they didn't like it as much as the new campaign look: rhinestone cross on a white cowboy hat.

Lee batted aside suggestions that G.C.B. makes fun of Christianity, insisting that the show is "actually very pro-religion, but it looks at hypocrisy, which is, by the way, a tradition that goes back ... hundreds of years."

This is a show, he said, about "Texas women and their big attitudes and big hair and big shoes."

Later in the day, G.C.B. exec producer Robert Harling insisted that "the church is sacred" in the show.

"We will never ever look at this other than in the most respectful way possible," Harling said. The comedy, he said, comes from watching people "try to be good" and failing, not from mocking Christianity.