“Hopefully, this is only the season finale,” professed the familiar, colorful title-card last Tuesday before “Cougar Town” ’s two-episode season finale. Self-referential and oft-deprecating title-card jokes have been a running gag since season two, some of the highlights this year being “She’s marrying a man her own age, so why is it still called: ‘Cougar Town,’ ” “ ‘I didn’t know it was back on either’ – Abed” and “Welcome to Cougarton Abbey.” But this time, it wasn’t so much a joke as an honest plea. By the time the finale aired, the snappy sitcom’s fate had been decided: ABC technically canceled the program, but TBS swooped in to save the day, ordering a complete fourth season.

Cougar Town

Season Finale
Tuesdays at 8 p.m.

But the show was still very much within the bubble while filming these episodes, so showrunners Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel created a finale that could say “goodbye for now” or “goodbye forever” and still leave viewers satiated. For Biegel and Lawrence, the end of season three really is their permanent farewell: The pair are stepping down, a voluntary move overshadowed by the much more scandalous NBC vs. Dan Harmon saga.

There are actually lots of goodbyes in “My Life/Your World.” Grayson (Josh Hopkins) must kiss goodbye to his privacy and love of quiet reading (nerd alert!) in lonerland. Marrying Jules means marrying the gang and all of their bizarre yet endearing qualities like their re-appropriation of common sayings (take note: “fat chance” now means the opposite of “slim chance” and “cake walk” now describes really difficult activities).

Travis (Dan Byrd) bids adieu to his youth — though he probably did long ago considering that he is constantly hangin with his mom’s friends — by turning 21. He officially becomes a full-fledged member of the grape-gaga gang by sipping his first glass of wine … and then later throwing back two bottles’ worth and spewing a drunken, naked, long-awaited proclamation of love for Laurie (Busy Phillips).

The B-plot of “My Life” almost forces a farewell to the cul-de-sac crew’s favorite game Penny Can, which Travis points out has become boring in its simplicity. It’s a wonderfully meta moment; after all, how long can an audience be entertained by watching characters throw pennies into a can before the inside joke rusts over? Travis’ dramatic conclusion — that Penny Can is about family, tradition, maybe even America — speaks to the reason we can never tire of the game. Penny Can’s simple, it’s fun, it’s resourceful and it has heart. We love the game because the characters do, and the characters are what make “Cougar Town” more than just a string of witty jokes doused in no-no juice.

The show has always succeeded in mixing the heartwarming moments with the heartbreaking ones, and the finale epitomizes this delicate balance. The others subject Jules (Courteney Cox) to a “Groundhog Day”-type inquisition until she admits to Laurie that she was made Ellie’s (Christa Miller) co-maid of honor out of pity, but Jules’ rather smothering love wins out.

When the show first introduced Laurie’s overseas hot soldier boyfriend who she met on Twitter, it was just a gag used to show how ridiculous Laurie can sometimes be. But “Cougar Town” made it much more, establishing Wade (Edwin Hodge) as an actual character. It’s just crazy enough to work, and when he finally shows up in person as Travis and Laurie are sharing a near-moment, Travis’ devastation mixed with Laurie’s deserved happiness makes for enough emotion to fill Big Lou to the brim. The will-they-won’t-they tale of Laurie and Travis is growing tired, and some find the age difference tough to swallow, but it’s still hard not to root for these two as they gaze at each other during Grayson and Jules’ beach wedding.

That beach wedding. What a perfect example of a picture-perfect romantic scene that “Cougar Town” does so well without dipping into the overly syrupy. The trick is infusing the bliss with zany jokes, Chick (Ken Jenkins) fighting tears by looking into his horse’s eyes, the wedding party having to move along the beach to avoid oceanside cops.

Setting part of the finale in Napa evokes the brilliance of season two’s Hawaii-based finale; it’s almost spiritual to see the crew in the motherland of viticulture. But coming back to the ill-named town has a beach-day warmness to it.

While comedy lovers should be thrilled that this isn’t the end for “Cougar Town,” few can say that seeing Jules and Grayson literally ride a stallion into the sunset wouldn’t be a charming, fitting final image.

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