Whatever the Chinese calendar says, this could turn out to be the year of the cougar on American television.
A “cougar,” for those who have been hibernating, is a middle-aged woman either prowling for or finding herself involved with a measurably younger man.
Television did a test run last season with TV Land’s painful “reality” show “The Cougar.” This year, praise the Lord, cougars have moved into the more comfortable den of scripted comedy – led by ABC’s “Cougar Town,” a sitcom that debuts Sept. 23 with Courteney Cox as the cougar.
Cox practically purred this weekend when she talked to TV writers about the show – noting she’s seven years older than her real-life husband David Arquette.
“I’ve been blazing that trail for years,” she said. “I think it’s great to be a cougar.”
This fall, she won’t be prowling alone.
Laura Leighton’s Sydney Andrews, returning to the CW’s revived “Melrose Place,” immediately moves in on the young. Rebecca Romijn’s Roxie on ABC’s new “Eastwick” starts off with a young fellow, and Susan Ward’s Chloe Kmetko on ABC Family’s “Make It or Break It” tries to pass herself off as her teenage daughter’s sister.
Equally revealing, “cougar” is now casual TV banter. On the season premiere of “Flipping Out,” Jeff Lewis calls his divorced assisstant Jenni a “cougar” even when she protests she’s 36, not 40.
Cox turned 45 in June, and she opens “Cougar Town” with a shower scene where she inventories her body, dislikes everything and concludes she’s starting to resemble a farm animal.
Sure. And chocolate mousse tastes like peat moss and Lamborghinis drive like lawn mowers.
Cox disproves her own point minutes later with a lingerie scene that would make the cast of “Gossip Girl” gasp.
But the deeper point of the opening scene, suggested Cox, is to reinforce how turning 40 unleashes a lot of self-doubt for real-life women.
“It’s hard,” she said. “It would be really scary if I wasn’t married and I had to go back out there again.”
By that premise, a cougar is simply a woman who has decided to defy destiny and maybe enjoy a little turnabout.
The exotic fascination of the older woman-younger man is hardly new, of course, predating even Mrs. Robinson. Eva Longoria’s Gaby was not the first bored housewife to covet the pool boy.
The most succinct summation came years ago on “Ed Sullivan” from a somewhat less likely cougar, the late great Moms Mabley.
“The only thing an old man can give me,” she said, “is the phone number of a young man.”
But for the “cougar” concept to work as a weekly show, said Bill Lawrence, “Cougar Town’s” executive producer, it can’t be just a wink-wink, nudge-nudge one-liner.
“If every week this show were about what young man is Courteney going to sleep with,” he said, “that’s the Samantha from ‘Sex and the City’ show, and I don’t think people would respond.”
The heart of “Cougar Town,” he said, is how a divorced middle-aged woman puts her life back together – and why it’s harder for her than for her divorced middle-aged husband.
“Because,” said Lawrence, “it is ultimately still a sexist and misogynistic society.”