After a couple of fairly vigorous workouts in recent weeks, Raising Hope returned from its Thanksgiving break with its hair mussed and its shoelaces untied and enough of its underpants visible above the top of its jeans that you could see yesterday's date written on the waistband in magic marker. You know how there are sometimes moments on this show where the actors seem to have gotten pages in their script that read, "We're a little short this week, just vamp for 30 seconds," and how you can tell that a moment like that is going down because the playful-goofy music is practically a supporting character? The guy strumming and whistling really earned his paycheck here, especially in the first half, when the gang was trying out wacky inventions, and Cloris Leachman was trying to help by shouting out suggestions for inventions that somebody has already cashed in on.
Much of the show, which ended with what might have been the strangest and most elaborately drawn-out tribute to The Wizard Of Oz that I've seen since Wild At Heart, felt as if it had been pieced together, on the run and in a single draft, by people who'd gotten their calendars a little scrambled and realized that they had an episode to deliver just two days before deadline, and just five minutes after they'd started to sober up. I'm not describing the ideal conditions under which one might make Good TV, but they probably work better with a show like this than, say, Boardwalk Empire. (I can't see the writers on that show making a valiant effort to tie a loose-fitting episode together with a nod to Oz, which is kind of a shame. I'd love to hear William Forsythe announce, "I'll thrash ya from top to bottomus!" the next time he parts some guy's hair with a meat cleaver.)
The show marked the welcome return of Ethan Suplee as the hapless neighbor Andrew, who had become a drop-in visitor to be feared since his abandonment by his wife, Donna, once played by Jamie Pressly, whose failure to appear in this episode was also very welcome. (She and a supporting cast composed of the wretched, the hopeless, the doomed, and Cutty from The Wire can be seen tomorrow night, on this very same channel, in the premiere of I Hate My Teenage Daughter, a sitcom that will give your eyes the TV watcher's equivalent of a painful rectal itch.) In a state of abject loneliness and depression, Andrew turned to the big-hearted Burt, who made him his partner in coming up with a surefire, million-seller of an invention they could pitch to a big-screen video incarnation of Andrew Dice Clay at the big "Invention Convention Extravaganza," hosted by Patton Oswalt.
Jimmy, naturally, roped Sabrina in as his own partner, after he'd gotten everyone at the grocery plotting and scheming to come up with the get-rich-quick prototype of Patton Oswalt's squat dreams. Virginia, who'd ordered everyone to get on the stick and come up with something, was confused and appalled to see all this partnering up. "The idea was to go out and come back with an idea," she kvetched, "not come back with a person!" But then, the best idea she was able to come up with on her own was to stick two sponges under her arms to soak up perspiration and call them Pit Stops. So maybe she didn't deserve to get a vote on this one. The whole invention-creating process didn't bring out the best in her, though not being at her best gave her a chance to showcase her flair for self-justifying arguments. Explaining why it would be to the world's benefit for her to become rich, whatever the cost, she snarled, "People only give to charity when they have money. Do you think Oprah was building orphanages in Africa when she was poor? She wasn't. She was smokin' crack in Baltimore." I'd like to think that line was included as someone's idea of welcoming Cutty to the Fox network.
What Virginia failed to realize, of course, was that Jimmy's partnering with Sabrina was merely the latest stage in his cunning, long-running plan to spend enough time with her that he inevitably wins her heart. He was happy to share with her not just his prospective riches but the credit for his own brainstorm, absorbent baby clothes that were designed to serve as mops as the babies crawled all over any surfaces in need of cleaning. ("If there's two things you can count on," he proclaimed, giving his pitch, "it's that things will spill, and babies will crawl!") And when Sabrina tried to help by suggesting that the outfits be augmented with sticks for people to use to push the babies around, an idea that effectively negated the whole point of Jimmy's invention, since it canceled out the fact that the babies had the ability to cover a lot of space all by themselves, which was what gave them an edge over the traditional mop, Jimmy just smiled and nodded and planned to distract her when it was time to sell the invention to Andrew Dice Clay. As he explained to the creepy guy at work, to do otherwise would have resulted in an argument, and he had decided to do whatever it took to never get into an argument with Sabrina, because she was always fighting with the boyfriend she hopes to displace. The creepy guy mulled this over and said, "The opposite of the guy she had sex with. Good strategy!"
If all this is making it sound very linear and logical, rest assured that while you were watching it, it felt just like what it must have sounded like when it was going down in the writers' room: an excuse to kill 10 or 15 minutes by making the most of the idea that it's fun to watch morons come up with silly inventions. It must have been a special treat for anyone who's spent the past 18 years wondering what would have been featured in all those Invention Exchanges if Joel Hodgson had never left Mystery Science Theater 3000. Given the audience they'd be pitching to, Burt and Andrew wisely chose to go man-centric, creating a line of yogurt in manly flavors, such as hamburger and pork. Burt found this kind of testosterone-fueled creativity invigorating, though he did draw the line at Andrew's proposal that they create "tampons for our butts." Every so often, the music would die down long enough for Cloris Leachman to come back on and do the same joke again, though she did score when she wondered aloud about the viability of "a TV channel just for news. Wait, they'd have to fill up too many hours, and resort to sensationalizing non-issues and stirring up partisan bickering." Satire!
Finally, everyone was gathered in an auditorium, waiting for the Diceman himself to gaze down from on high and evaluate their work. For those of us who missed his recent comeback appearance on Entourage, because the only alternative to not missing it would have been to watch Entourage, evaluating the sight of Clay felt a lot like work all by itself. Is he really a thousand years old, or is it just that it feels as if that much time is passing whenever someone who looks as if he's been feuding with Jerry Seinfeld's parents while standing in line waiting for the Early Bird Dinner throws back his head and yells, "Whoa!" It was clear that not everything was as it seemed when he pointed out the obvious flaw in the creepy guy's plan for black traffic cones to be used at black-tie evening events, demonstrating a sharp critical eye and level of articulation that one does not associate with the star of Brainsmasher... A Love Story. But the important thing is that Andrew, out of a need to stand up for his friend Burt, learned to raise his voice and assert himself, while Jimmy, pushed beyond endurance by Sabrina, found it in himself to tell her what he thought of her stupid stick. She was last seen confiding that his demonstration of pissed-off masculine aggression struck her as kind of hot, absolutely the first indication I can recall that the boy might actually have a shot. Will they soon be at a state of intimacy where they, like Burt and Virginia, can tiptoe around the house administering wet willies in each other's ears? Probably not before the season finale, and almost certainly not before next sweeps period.