Thanksgiving--still more than a week away, I know, but on a TV series, it's whenever the network happens to schedule the Thanksgiving episode--provides us with an occasion to think about the lives of those less fortunate. Consider for example, the situation (I almost wrote "plight", but let's hang onto some perspective here, there are starving kids working in sweatshops in Thailand) of TV stars whose last hit shows ended thirty or forty years ago and no longer find themselves as employable as they used to be. They may seem especially poignant if in their heyday, they specialized in dispensing motherly advice between banging on a tambourine or in looking grimly determined while running in slow motion in a red track suit--in other words, something other what we conventionally define as "acting." There are never enough roles out there for aging performers, any more than there are for any other kind, and when your name is slotted alongside Abe Vigoda's in the filed marked "Are They Still Alive?" and your doctor won't risk his license to give you any more Botox injections, you're much more likely than you once were to lose out to some distinguished colleague who never became as famous as you did but can refer to himself as an "actor" without making the crew double over laughing.
What do today's crop of short-term career sprinters, those who range from the completely untalented and not especially likable (excuse me, KAFF KAFF KAFF Whitney Cummings KAFF KAFF!) to those who are technically accomplished but can't find a way to play an unstoppable, two-fisted, urban man of action in a way that seems especially different from the way they once played Jesus on his way to the cross, have to look forward to a few decades further up the road? They might look to Cloris Leachman as their Ghost of Christmas Future. (Sorry for mixing my holidays.) Cloris Leachman is, of course, a genuine, legitimate actress, with such impressive movie credits as Kiss Me Deadly, The Last Picture Show, and Young Frankenstein to her name. But while she's not Paris Hilton, she's not Judi Dench either, or even Angela Lansbury. Nobody ever wanted to put her in a picture just so that audiences could bask in her autumnal dignity. So, after a long stretch in the "Dead Yet?" file, she seriously re-energized her career by snagging roles in such films as Bad Santa and using them to alert casting directors that autumnal dignity was something she was willing to part with.
This, in turn, led to her regular gig on Raising Hope. Tonight, she gets to make vibrator jokes, flash some lucky guy during an Internet chat, and show the camera her thong, all of which are pretty much par for the course by now. (Betty White, who used to co-star with Leachman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is in some weird but cozy place right now where, in terms of autumnal dignity, she's halfway between Leachman and Angela Lansbury. Like Leachman, her late career surge is powered by how funny people think it is to see grandma talking dirty, but maybe because White really has come to look like a storybook grandmother, she can get a lot more mileage out of material that's half as rowdy as what Leachman does on Raising Hope.) Tonight, Leachman is joined by Lee Majors and Shirley Jones, who play Burt's disapproving rich parents, and whose appearance in roles like this comes with an advisory label that reads, "We could have gotten actors for these parts, but instead we thought it would be cute to cast these figures from the popular culture of an earlier time, on the theory that you'll enjoy just seeing them because they are beloved."
I'm not sure how beloved they really are, but casting them as Burt's parents, in an episode where the feelings of inferiority that Burt suffers in relation to them is key to the story, serves to put quotation marks around the whole show and make it both cuter than it had to be and strange in ways besides the ways it was going to be strange already. They aren't Whitney Cummings-level godawful, I guess, but they also aren't Burt's parents so much as they're Lee 'n Shirl. Of the two, Majors gives the sprightlier performance. He still looks like a slow-moving rock formation, but he surprised me with his ability to read the same line--"I knew it!"-- two different ways, in reaction to two different pieces of news, that Burt's brother has gotten into college and Burt has knocked up Virginia. He came to play. By comparison, Shirley Jones acts as if she knows all too well that she's only here because somebody thought it would be hilarious to hear Mrs. Partridge say, "This salad dressing tastes like douche." (And by the way, yes, I do know that Shirley Jones won an Academy Award for her performance in Elmer Gantry, I have seen Elmer Gantry, and my theory is that Academy voters had access to crack cocaine twenty-five years before the rest of the country.)
The premise of the episode is that Burt's parents are coming for Thanksgiving, instead of spending the holiday with their successful son, for a change. (Pops Majors says he figures that spending it with the Chances will be "more like the original Thanskgiving: no heat, and I'm sure some of the food will be donated. Just kidding, son.") Knowing that the judgment of his folks makes Burt ashamed of his life, Virginia has the brainstorm of moving into the spacious home of one her clients and pretending to live there. As a cherry, she agrees to have sex with Burt in the unfamiliar surroundings of her clients' kitchen, a touch that's worth mentioning because I think it must have been the happiest I've ever seen Garret Dillahunt in a scene where he didn't get to disembowel someone. ("I knew that erotic suggestion box would pay off. Thank you, Oprah!") It made me less happy, because I hate to see a show that's capable of wringing some original comedy out of believable and grungy situations digging up a sitcom plot that would have looked hoary on The Flintstones, but I tried to keep an open mind.
Much of what followed wasn't funny (Burt, who doesn't know what a humidor is, being horrified to learn that there's one in the house that's full of "illegal Cubans"), and some of it (such as the inevitable scene of the Chances being caught off guard when the phone answering machine switches on) made you wonder why these characters had never seen a sitcom where someone pretends to live in someone else's house, so they'd be better prepared. It got more interesting as it got less funny, though, especially if you have nothing better to do on a Tuesday night than watch TV for sociological reasons. Before Virginia's clients returned from their vacation early, Burt's dad broke down and admitted that he and mom were now broke and homeless--"All my retirement money was tied up with Bernie Madoff and Borders bookstores"--and, now that they knew how well their prodigal boy was doing, hoped to sponge off him. Once they're driven back to their own home, the Chances then set about trying to teach the old folks who to adjust to life as part of the 99%.
It didn't go well, but that's not Burt and Virginia's fault. They get Grandpa Majors a job, which involves standing on a street corner in a chicken suit, because Lee Majors hasn't shucked off his autumnal dignity to a Leachmanian degree yet, but he's game. They teach them about low-income fun, such as batting a balloon back and forth over the couch. But Lee and Shirley have just been too comfortable too long--both in the sense of being financially comfortable and being secure in their fantasy that they were doing well because they were better people than the moochers and losers who have problems, and always would be--to make the transition to happy struggling people, and after making a few reflexive big purchases on the last credit card they haven't maxed out, they light out for the succor that sponging off Burt's successful brother can provide. Before they leave, though, Dad puts one hand on Burt's shoulder and delivers a heartfelt --you know, for Lee Majors--speech about how he's come to recognize that Burt holds his family together by working like a dog for very little money and that this is kind of heroic.
At its best, in addressing economic reality and playing it for laughs, Raising Hope goes places that other shows are afraid to go, and this, too, is kind of heroic. What's frustrating about this episode is the part of the show that goes there is just a brief epilogue to the part that feels like a tired sitcom premise being given one last trot around the neighborhood on the way to the glue factory. It's as if the show has lost its faith in its own ability to be funny and halfway real at the same time. And more and more, its inherent contradictions are summed up in the character of Sabrina. She and Jimmy have a scene, "practicing" kissing after she's agreed to pretend to be his wife for Grandpa and Grandma, that has the potential to be really charming, especially if you think these two have any business kissing for real. But Sabrina, who mentions that her own rich family is "taking the jet to Turkey for what they're calling 'an ironic Thanksgiving'", also has a scene where she's hanging out at Jimmy's house and, and after hearing Victoria refer to "a self-refilling prophecy" and say that Burt's relationship with his parents is estranged, "it's totally strange", cries out, "Two malaprops in a row! God, I love this family." Since establishing that Sabrina comes from money, the show has struggled to define what her friendship with the Chances means to her, and it doesn't seem to get how ugly it is to suggest that she herself is not only slumming when she's with them, but that her affection for them is meant to be "ironic."