I’ve always liked this show, and I’m rooting for it to continue to prosper in the absence of creator Greg Garcia. The last few episodes, tonight’s included, are not without their charms, especially if you’re in the mood for deep-dish silliness. But it doesn’t feel quite like itself. In previous seasons, Raising Hope put out its fair share of episodes that felt awkward and uneven and misconceived. But it was usually reaching for something that felt in tune with the sweetness and rude humor of the best episodes. Tonight’s episodes feel less like a poke in the eye than some of the worst episodes from the first three seasons, but that’s because they lack bite. They’re too feeble to get on anyone’s nerves.
“Extreme Howdy's Makeover”
It’s a measure of how half-baked “Makeover” is that the guest star, Molly Shannon, was better used a few weeks ago when she played a remarkably similar character on Super Fun Night. Here, Shannon is an entrepreneur named Maxine whose inspirational pep talks (“Sometimes I think to myself, what will I think of next? And then I think it!”) are built around her demand that her employees “Maxinemize” profits at every opportunity. The examples given of how Maxinemizing works—such as using Howdy’s deli case as a hotel room for Japanese businessmen who don’t expect a lot of space—are notably non-hilarious, and set a rickety stage for the announcement that Howdy’s will be hosting an art show that will give Jimmy the chance to showcase his drawings of hippos doing people stuff.
Sensing disaster looming ahead—“Why would you go out of your way to draw attention to yourself?” asks Virginia. “It’s like being the noisiest turkey the day before Thanksgiving.”—Jimmy’s parents try to get the event shut down. But then, Molly Shannon decides that the art show will incorporate a grandmother/granddaughter pageant, and Virginia abandons her own plans in order to rehearse a ventriloquist act, with Hope as her puppet. In a plot twist that’s too queasily contrived to be defended as a deliberate parody of contrived sitcom plot twists, Maxine is revealed to be Sabrina’s aunt, who has gone to the trouble of buying Howdy’s, at her niece’s urging, just so she can mount the art show, in order that Sabrina might provide Jimmy with a chance to show off his hippo drawings and feel good about his creativity. (It was also Sabrina’s idea to throw in the grandmother/granddaughter pageant, since that would get Virginia to back off with her protests.)
Before everything is sorted out, Molly Shannon fires Barney, who has some funny moments when he’s thoroughly given up on himself: “Like most of the products on Hardy’s shelves, I’m way past my expiration date.” (Referring to his wealth of marketable skills, he moans, “I put myself through VCR repair school by installing pay phones.”) I do wish that Barney didn’t also have to swig from a container of chocolate sauce, just so that Virginia can say that he’s “been hitting the sauce” since losing his job, ha ha. And given Virginia’s heroic record of intricately constructed malapropisms, it’s extremely discouraging to hear her mock Jimmy’s artistic aspirations by calling him “Andy Narwahl.” Happily, Jimmy’s artwork is a big hit with the kids, so Molly Shannon’s mission was a success. I’m not clear on whether she still owns Howdy’s at the end, or whether she hires Barney back. He’s back in his job in time for the next episode, though, so somebody must hire him back.
Poor Virginia and Burt spend half this episode trapped in some bullshit about their lawyer asking them to be his pretend-assistant counsel during a trial, because he needs their physical loveliness to balance out his rival’s extremely good-looking assistants. This storyline need not detain us long, except that it’s worth remembering that last week’s show contained a Deadwood-related inside joke that I enjoyed very much, and this episode contains an inside joke referring to a Raising Hope episode from a couple of weeks ago. This I find less endearing, and maybe just a tad desperate.
The other plotline is more along the lines of classic Raising Hope, though it takes a while to get started. Sabrina is unhappy to learn that being Hope’s stepmother does not automatically give her full legal authority to sign off on her school trips, so she officially adopts her. Jimmy assumes this is just for practical reasons, but then he overhears Sabrina telling some other mothers that she’s Hope’s birth mother, and he becomes concerned that she feels that she missed out on something by not being Hope’s birth mother. Frank rises to the occasion: “To us,” he explains, “giving birth is just a cruel, disgusting joke of biology, but to women, it’s their Super Bowl.” So Frank and Barney rig up an elaborate childbirth-simulation installation in the Chances’ backyard and walk Sabrina through the experience of pretending to bring Hope into this world, complete with the slapstick deployment of spaghetti and Jimmy needing rescuing. (At one point, Sabrina bawls Barney out, and he says that he sometimes wonders if she needs reminding that he's her boss. Does he need reminding that she can always apparently have her aunt fire him again?) I'm not sure this stuff is even funny in theory, but thanks to Shannon Woodward, the last moments are genuinely sweet. Funny sweet would be better, but one or the other is not nothing.