Raising Hope: “Hot Dish”
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Raising Hope: “Hot Dish”

Stephen Root was on this show once, remember? He played Sabrina’s father, which you might think of as a role that would almost guarantee a return appearance or two, even if the whole point of the character was that he was never particularly involved in his little girl’s life. But a couple of years have passed and that one guest shot remains his sole turn on this show, which means that he’s been on Kung Fu Panda: Legends Of Awesomeness three times as many times as he’s been on Raising Hope. I guess that’s not really a valid comparison, since actors today probably just whip out their phones and plow through their voice performances in animated series while waiting for their number to come up at Starbucks.

The fact remains that while Root’s character couldn’t make his own daughter’s wedding, tonight marks the third appearance by Shirley Jones and Lee Majors as Burt’s relentlessly unfunny parents. Jones, who, as Sergio Leone once said of Rod Steiger, once won an Academy Award by mistake, and who I have always thought of as Florence Henderson without Wessonality, at least sort of fits her part here; her trademark brittle false cheer, complete with a smile that appears to be composes of three rows of teeth, matches up with the Mother Superior bitchiness that makes everyone want to strangle Burt’s mother.

But there are prettier sights in the world than Lee Majors trying to do comedy. (There are prettier sights in Eli Roth movies than Lee Majors trying to do comedy.) Once upon a time, Lee Majors starred in The Six Million Dollar Man, the Intelligence of its day, as a man who had a super-powered mechanical arm, a super-powered mechanical eye, and a pair of super-powered mechanical legs, but who couldn’t change expression if you set his lap on fire. Cleveland Amory once wrote in TV Guide that in order to get Majors to act, you had to insert nickels into his slot. The good people of Raising Hope don’t seem to have been able to locate the slot, and I cannot in good conscience fault them for not looking for it too closely.

In tonight’s episode, Grandma Shirley enters the hot dish competition in Natesville’s Radish Festival, and Grandpa Lee ensures her victory by making out with the judges, which Burt discovers when he catches his old man smooching on an attractive young lady judge. When Burt expresses disgust, his parents chide him for his naivete, telling him that his pops has gone through life making things easier for everyone, Burt included, by freely dispensing sugar to anyone who would take it. (Burt staggers back to Virginia and tells her, “I finally realized how I won that high school essay contest with a hand-drawn picture of boobs.”) At the end of the episode, Grandma expresses her interest in entering another contest; Virginia points out that the judges for that one are all male, and Grandpa mugs disdain and says, “Oh dear Lord”, while all the other characters laugh heartily. It feels like one of those episodes of The Simpsons that ends with Grandpa Simpson clutching his heart and announcing that he’s dying or something, and everyone laughs while he demands to know what the hell they’re laughing at, he’s really serious.

Maybe the worst thing I can say about the bulk of this episode is that seeing Lee Majors applying the Steve Austin lip-lock to the bit players and lamenting the fact that he’s soon going to be kissing men does not represent any kind of serious dropping-off point. The premise is that Sabrina is learning to cook, and her cooking stinks. (In the opening scene, she presents a black-topped pizza to the family and proudly exclaims, “Iron Chef says that everything tastes better with squid ink.”) But then Virginia lets her in on a few of her own cherished recipes, and Jimmy likes Sabrina’s takes on them as much as his own mother’s cooking, maybe even better. This naturally fills Virginia with jealousy, and soon everyone is entered in the contest.

In the heart-warming conclusion, Sabrina deliberately sabotages her own dish, because she knows how Virginia really feels: “The only reason I entered the contest was to make Jimmy proud, not step on your toes.” “The only reason I entered,” says Virginia, who has come to her senses and sabotaged her own dish so as not to come between her son and his wife, “was to destroy you in front of Jimmy. How could our good intentions have gone so wrong?” Meanwhile, Maw Maw is obsessed with winning a stuffed giraffe in a ball-tossing game, which is worth mentioning mainly because it gives Cloris Leachman a chance to say the line, “Shut your pie hole, you filthy carny, and give me some balls.” (The affronted carny says, “We go by ‘carnival game technicans’ now.”)

The episode’s MVP is Garret Dillahunt, who is hilarious when he’s trying to ward off disaster by steering the subject away from Sabrina’s improvements on Virginia’s cooking, and also when he repeatedly smacks Jimmy upside the head. (Then Lee Majors comes on and repeatedly smacks Burt upside the head, just to show that making this seem funny is harder than it may look.) The runner-up MVP is Cloris Leachman’s stunt double, who does a thirty-yard dash through an obstacle course of an outdoor fair set while lugging a stolen stuffed giraffe.

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