“Arbor Daze” is a remarkably sweet testament to the power of a loving family, and a surprisingly thoughtful contribution to Sabrina’s back story, especially considering that it has a Cracked-magazine title and prominently features Luke Perry’s face sticking out of a full-body carpet of festive greenery. (He looks like the handsome older brother whose high school legend Swamp Thing felt he could never live up to.) This is the costume that Burt has been donning every Arbor Day since Jimmy was a small boy, so that he can serve as emcee of the Chances’ annual holiday celebration in the person of Papa Woody, “the mystical, gift-giving wizard of the forest” who pitches his tent “deep in the bush.” “We thought it was hilarious,” Burt tells Sabrina when she giggles. “Jimmy never got it.” The expression on Jimmy’s face confirms that he still doesn’t, but like his parents, he’s just assumed that they’ll be resuming the family tradition now that Hope is old enough to take part.
Arbor Day was just one of several second-banana holidays, including Presidents Day and Chinese New Year—well, that one’s a second banana outside China, anyway—that the Chances made a big deal out of during Jimmy’s childhood, coming up with their own elaborate traditions and rituals, and seasonal songs, which are only as elaborate as Burt’s limited gifts as a songwriter can make them, but which just drip with “heart.” (My favorite may be Groundhog Day, as Virginia lays it out: “Since there were no groundhogs left in Natesville after the chemical spill, we just dug holes in the yard and left treats in them for Jimmy to find.” You have to admire that level of ingenuity, when most shows would have been content to stick in a Bill Murray reference and move on.) Sabrina is charmed by all this, including the detail that the Chances fill their house with tiny trees and festoon them with even tinier gifts for the youngsters.
She is less charmed when she learns that Burt and Virginia have been in the habit of sneaking into the park after hours, ripping fresh saplings out of the ground, and then, after they’ve served their holiday purpose, tossing them into the back yard to wither and be used for kindling. It doesn’t help that, as a child, she helped plant those saplings as part of her Girl Scout troop, and feels scarred for life because her parents never got the proud results of her hard work. Angrily, she refuses to let Hope take part in Burt and Virginia’s “tree genocide.” She prefers to celebrate Arbor Day by sitting Hope in front of the TV and showing her an educational documentary about how trees are our friends (so M. Night Shyamalan and Mark Wahlberg can go piss up a rope). Jimmy knows who he feels is right on this one, but he also knows who he sleeps with, and, for once in his life, he can do the math.
But after Jimmy and Sabrina bed down for the night, Sabrina is visited by Luke Perry, playing the Ghost of Arbor Day Past, Present, and Future. (What do you want? It’s a half-hour show.) Perry reminds Sabrina of how antiseptic and loveless her own pampered childhood was, and offers a contrast to Jimmy’s: It turns out that what might have seemed, on the surface, like random wackiness was actually a loving attempt to improve on grim reality. Burt and Virginia knocked themselves out improvising a whole galaxy of private family holidays for Jimmy, to compensate for the fact that they couldn’t afford to do it up big for him at Christmas. (Seeing Jimmy trying his best to get some enjoyment out of his Christmas gift from his parents—a homemade yo-yo that only travels in one direction, the one dictated by gravity—a mean kid taunts him on the playground with, “Ha, ha! Santa hates you!”)
In the end, Sabrina sees the light and makes for the park to start yanking up saplings. The upshot is a joyously goofy episode that somehow manages to make Sabrina’s attraction to Jimmy and his family make better sense—and seem more meaningful—than it ever has before. As she and the Ghost take in her own sad family memories, the last word, as it usually does, belongs to Luke Perry: “I am shocked you didn’t become a stripper.”
- In the flashbacks to Sabrina’s childhood, her parents are cold, distant figures whose faces are never shown, which underlines how alienated she always felt for them. Of course, this is an effective aesthetic choice that was necessitated by practical considerations: Apparently, Stephen Root and Melanie Griffith are never coming back. Necessity is the mother of invention, and all that. Ed Wood would be proud.
- Maw Maw, dragging Hope back into the front room after having spent one of her rare lucid moments alone with her: “I taught her about death. She’s not taking it too well. You deal with her.”
- Burt, trying to reason with Sabrina: “You can’t just start a new tradition and think it’s going to be as good! Have you ever seen the Puppy Bowl? They can’t even pick the ball up.”