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'Cougar Town hits road in search of viewers

Ever wanted to hang out with the stars of one of your favourite TV shows? Just to share some stories, drink some wine and watch a little TV?

Ever wanted to hang out with the stars of one of your favourite TV shows? Just to share some stories, drink some wine and watch a little TV?

Bill Lawrence is making that happen for fans of "Cougar Town" —and he's throwing in some T-shirts.

The co-creator and executive producer has been flying cast members Courteney Cox, Christa Miller, Dan Byrd, Busy Phillips, Ian Gomez and others, including writers and producers, to cities all over the U.S. in order to re-ignite interest in the series, which returns to ABC/City after a long hiatus Feb. 14.

He's even willing to host parties in Canada. "In a heartbeat," says Lawrence.

"Cougar Town" is heading into a key third season with less than a full vote of confidence from the network. The series had its original 22 episode order cut back to 15. It finds itself back on ABC's schedule only after the critically panned mid-season entry, "Man Up," quickly flopped.

Lawrence, the cast and several writers and producers met with reporters at an unscheduled bar event during the recent TV critics press tour in Pasadena. Always outspoken, the former "Scrubs" showrunner was careful to credit ABC with sticking with the series so far but also felt the need to reach beyond normal network marketing at this point in the series' history.

Coming back after an unusually long hiatus, Lawrence felt "Cougar Town" needed a grassroots push to remind fans and alert potential viewers it was still on the air. Co-creator Kevin Biegel came up with the idea of reaching out to fans by flying stars from the series to various cities for a series of meet and greet parties. Several have already taken place and several more are planned, including a stop at the Paley Center in New York City on Feb. 11 featuring most of the cast, including Cox.

Fans already know the series, which is produced in Hollywood, has nothing to do with man-hungry "cougars," a title Lawrence and the others hate but are sticking with at this point "like a badge of honour." Cox's character Jules is a single mom in her 40s, but Lawrence hints something happens right when the series returns that will "eliminate all elements of 'cougar' altogether."

The half hour comedy is more like "older people with friends," as Gomez, who plays Jules' chummy neighbour Andy, describes it. Lawrence says it's never explicit, but the series really takes place on weekends, which is why these friends are always hanging out together and drinking plenty of wine.

A series about friends hanging with friends would seem to lend itself to the concept of fans partying with cast members.

Lawrence promises wine will be provided. Two or three unseen episodes are also being screened at the events, and, yes, T-shirts are being handed out. All he asks is that fans tell "five or 10 friends who haven't watched yet to check us out."

Lawrence, a big advocate of social networking, is using Twitter and Facebook to get these parties started.

"Twitter is a haven for TV nerds," says Lawrence, who tweets under the handle @VDOOZER. Generating interest on social networks helps him control the marketing, he says. It also makes fans feel like insiders. Locations, often local bars, are posted online. Lawrence hopes this will keep the numbers practical, although 900 people already lined up to get into one 200-seat venue.

The actors who have taken part so far all say they've had a great time.

"I went to Sarasota and kicked it off, man, it was great," says Brian Van Holt, who plays Jules's laid-back ex- Travis.

"I'll go anywhere Bill wants to go. I like getting out of L.A. and the fans are really interested and interesting."

Dan Byrd, who plays Jules' college-age son Travis, did a fan party in his hometown of Atlanta over the holidays.

"It was a really positive experience," says Byrd. "We live in a vacuum on the set; the majority of feedback we get are from people working on the show or in the business. Fan reaction is invaluable and keeps the show alive."

None of the stars are paid for attending the parties. All of the costs involved are covered by Lawrence and the producers.

Gomez has hung with fans so far in San Diego, Seattle and Las Vegas.

"It's a good show, we're proud of it," he says.

"We also genuinely love hanging out together."

"Cougar Town" does seem to boast a tight cast, with Lawrence married to one of the stars, former "Drew Carey Show" regular Christa Miller.

Married to a Canadian — "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" star/writer Nia Vardolas — Gomez hopes more than anyone that the "Cougar Town" caravan of stars reaches into Canada.

"My wife's from Winnipeg, we got married up there," he says, vowing to "drag Nia along" to any Canadian excursions.

"We'll start it in B.C. and go straight to St. John's."

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.