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September 10, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

It’s only the fourth day back from summer hiatus, and already there’s been a mass murder/suicide on the set of Cougar Town. One by one, the cast members fall, their bodies buckling before crashing to the floor. ”We’re going for the first-ever quintuple,” says Courteney Cox, two seconds before pulling the trigger and wiping out costars Busy Philipps, Ian Gomez, Josh Hopkins, and Brian Van Holt. Of course, this instance of killer comedy is all a big joke — it’s part of an episode in which Jules (Cox) and company pretend that Ellie’s (Christa Miller) baby, Stan, has died in order to score lawn-mowing and cooking favors from creepy neighbor Tom (Robert Clendenin). It promises to be just one of many so-wrong-it’s-right moments on tap for season 2 of the ABC sitcom, which has transformed from an unfortunately titled creative disappointment into one of the funniest comedies on TV.

The fact that Cougar Town is still on the air is something of a surprise considering the show’s initial problems — as well as the unsexy ratings (viewership dropped from 12 million to 7 million over the course of the season). The series started with an uneven pilot and promo shots of Cox, who stars as single real estate agent Jules, wearing a tight tee that read ”40 is the new 20.” Most of the plots involved Jules hitting on hotties half her age — in keeping with the show’s extremely played-out title. Says Gomez, who plays Ellie’s lovable, henpecked husband, Andy: ”At first it was like, ‘Huh, is she going to date younger guys all the time?’ [Makes a snoring sound] Boring!”

The producers thought so too. Slowly, they began refining the writing, and about halfway through the season, the show did a 180-degree turn and became an ensemble piece less about dating and more about Jules’ merry band of misfit friends and their unhealthy obsession with drinking red wine before noon. ”I don’t know if we noticed it early on, but the cast was really funny together,” says exec producer Bill Lawrence of the series’ evolution. ”So it was like, ‘Why are we doing these random stories with week-to-week actors when we have funnier stuff?’ I don’t think Courteney had a scene with Ian Gomez until episode 5.” Though he and exec producer Kevin Biegel wrote the pilot, they made sure to hire a half-female writers’ room, who were quick to speak up when a story line didn’t ring true — particularly when it came to Jules’ love-hate-lust relationship with neighbor Grayson (Hopkins). ”One writer said to me, ‘If I was 40 and single, we’d just go hook up,’ ” recalls Lawrence. ”The ‘Oh my God, will they or won’t they’ angst seemed fake to her.” For her part, Cox is thrilled with the new approach. ”Yes, maybe I’m the lead of this show, but I never wanted it to be anything but all of us,” says the 46-year-old star. ”Who wants to be in every scene and every shot? That’s exhausting. I’m tired!” Notes Philipps, who plays Jules’ endearingly slutty protégée, Laurie: ”I remember Bill [Lawrence] walking up to Courteney, Christa, and me in a scene and saying, ‘Now, this is what the show is about. It’s about friends.’ And they changed things. They changed what had been planned.”

Another thing that almost changed was the title itself. Toward the end of season 1, Jules had to turn in her cougar cred when she began dating Hopkins’ fortysomething cul-de-sac hottie. So now not only did the title appear to be turning off viewers, it also made no sense. ”The title made it seem like dating younger guys was all she was ever going to do,” says Cox. Over the summer, producers mulled possible name changes, including Friends and Neighbors and Neighborhood Jules. ”We were never going to change the title to anything with the word friends unless we used the same exact font as Friends,” says Lawrence. What about the double entendre Family Jules? ”Yeah, because Cougar Town wasn’t offensive enough to people, now I’ll call the show Nuts?” jokes Lawrence. ”The only title we liked was Sunshine State, and we thought about changing it to that, but then [Matthew Perry’s ABC midseason comedy] Mr. Sunshine got picked up, so we said, ‘Eh, screw it.’ Now we wear it as a badge of honor. Let’s see if we can keep TV’s worst title on the air!”

No doubt a season premiere featuring Cox’s real-life bestie, Jennifer Aniston, will help the cause. ”Jen plays Courteney’s new shrink, because I’m a businessman first and I’m hoping she comes back,” says Lawrence. ”The story is about how Jules entrusted herself to a shrink she believes in, and then finds out that the therapist is crazy.” So we shouldn’t hold our breath for a kiss, like the last time Aniston and Cox appeared together, on the latter’s doomed tabloid drama Dirt? ”I don’t think we’re going to kiss this time,” says Cox with a laugh. ”But that stupid little kiss still gets hits on the Internet. I was like, ‘Wow, our hellos are more intimate than that. We kiss longer in real life!”’

Beyond the Aniston ratings bait, season 2 will also see Jules’ sarcastic son, Travis (Dan Byrd), move away to college, which, as Cox says, ”is devastating for a mother who likes to drink his tears and would like to live in his blood.” (Friday Night Lights‘ LaMarcus Tinker will be introduced as Travis’ college roomie because, says Lawrence, ”their universe seems a little lily-white.”) Producers plan to send the gang to the Bahamas later in the season, perhaps on the boat of Jules’ slacker ex-husband, Bobby (Van Holt). Also look for a Jules-and-Andy dance episode. ”Oddly, Courteney and Ian Gomez love to sexy-dance in her bungalow,” says Biegel. ”So it was easy to talk them into it.” And yes, there will still be plenty of jokes about Grayson’s minuscule eyes. ”I’m sick of it!” Hopkins faux-fumes. ”When those lines keep popping up in scripts, that’s when you know people in the writers’ room are talking about you behind your back.”

But will people be talking about the new and improved Cougar Town? ”I think we’ve got a real shot this season, a How I Met Your Mother type of shot,” says Lawrence. ”Without a doubt the first six episodes of the year are a big deal. If it does the same as last year, it’ll be on for five years. If it goes down, I guess it depends.” Cox, also an exec producer, is feeling the stress too. ”Would I like our ratings to be as good as Modern Family‘s? Sure,” she says. ”Friends would get a 32 share, and now we’re so excited because we got 7 million viewers?” There’s only so much worrying she can do, though, because it’s time to change outfits for another scene, this one involving the phrase ”dead-baby tacos.” A crew member approaches, waving a lightly padded beige bra in front of the star. ”They’re not as good as they used to be,” Cox says, glancing down at her chest. ”They’re little since I had a kid. But hey, they’re something — and we’ll do whatever we can to get ratings.”

Courteney Cox stars in Bill Lawrence’s ensemble comedy
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