After last year’s Thanksgiving episode, featuring shenanigans involving a “borrowed” house and Lee Majors in a chicken suit, I wouldn’t mind if the good people of Natesville never celebrated Turkey Day again. Little did I know that the show had its own, imaginary holiday lurking up its sleeve: Natesville’s Radish Harvest Festival, a gala celebration of the remarkable, oversized radishes that the town’s soil produces. In the first scene of “Candy Wars,” which is also the last halfway amusing scene of the episode, local TV reporter Dave Davidson checks in from the fairgrounds, where the residents are celebrating the radishes for their use “as food, as garnish, and as projectiles.” When hilarity is the goal, it’s obviously next to impossible to go wrong with jumbo-sized vegetables. (Secure in its faith that this is true, the show revs things up to 11 by bringing in a big-ass squash to complement the big-ass radishes.) But rather than make the Harvest Festival an annual tradition, I’d be all for bringing in the EPA to test the miraculous soil and post some skull-and-crossbones warning signs, shutting this puppy down. I love you, Raising Hope, but I’ve seen funnier Day of the Dead episodes.
The whole giant-radish thing is, sadly, just a pretext to introduce a basis for conflict, which as we know is the cornerstone of all drama and Three Stooges routines. The highlight of the festival is the parade, showcasing one local child as the Little Pilgrim of Radish Harvest lore. Each year, the kid who gets to dress up and wave to the crowd is selected according to whomever triumphs in a candy-selling competition. Jimmy was the Little Pilgrim in 1993, and thereby hangs a tale. It’s a tale that comes in flashback form, which means Garret Dillahunt in a sleeveless wife-beater and vintage Patti Smith wig, and also Blues Traveler jokes—or at least references to Blues Traveler, the idea being that any mention of those gentlemen, coupled with the sight of Gregg Binkley in a fat suit and that stupid-looking hat, will automatically trigger merriment.
It seems that the battle for supremacy in the candy wars pits Virginia, who has Jimmy’s back, against her co-worker, Rosa, who is pushing the envelope trying to sell enough candy to put her own son in the spotlight. The Chances are already at a disadvantage because of the quality of their product. Cloris Leachman, who sat out the last couple of episodes, was lured back by the opportunity to deliver the line, “Just because it’s brown and filled with nuts doesn’t mean it has to taste like crap.” So she concocts her own special recipe, which is so addictively delicious that it’s the Infinite Jest of candy. (The secret ingredient is bacon grease, and there are numerous long, loving shots of the stuff being gathered, squeezed, and processed. Do not watch this episode while eating.) Maw Maw’s Magic Brown, as it is known on the street, wins the contest for Jimmy, but when Virginia sees Rosa and her family looking sad on the day of the parade, all the fun of it dies for her, and she vows to never again get caught up in a candy war. The end. Then someone notices that the episode is only half over, so, in the present day, the Chances and Rosa renew hostilities and do the same thing all over again for another 15 minutes.
“Candy Wars” settles in as a parody of gangster movies, and it manages to hit most of the obvious touchstones, from a drive-by shooting with Super Soakers to a spoof of the horse’s head scene in The Godfather. This is deadly stuff, about on the level of the kind of skits that people who are overly impressed with their own creativity might put on at their kid’s birthday party, and the execution is so half-assed that it’s as if the show decided to take the holiday week off but still fill up a half-hour timeslot and get everybody paid. Steven Soderbergh once observed that you can tell how much fun certain movies were to make from how little fun they are to watch. “Candy Wars” looks as if everyone working on it had a blast, except maybe for whoever had to mop up the bacon grease.
- Even under the worst of circumstances, Frank is unsinkable. Twitchier than usual, he sidles up to Jimmy in the store and implores him for a taste of chocolate. Jimmy declines: “Barney said I can’t sell it in the store.” “Barney also said if I just wander around doing nothing all day, he’d fire me,” says Frank. “That was 10 years ago!”
- Burt, failing to enjoy his ice cream at the Harvest festival: “The radish is not a dessert-y vegetable.”
- They may not give classes on it at the Royal Shakespeare Academy, but a half hour of television that requires people to maniacally and surreptitiously stuff chocolate into their mouths is a real test of the actor’s craft. Let it be noted that Martha Plimpton makes a pig of herself with the most grace and panache.
- In his new book about the history of Marvel Comics, Sean Howe reports that the comic book series that was conceived, in collaboration with Mattel, under the title “Cosmic Champions” was changed to Secret Wars because, “according to market research, [those] were two words that made kids go wild.” Thank Christ Mattel and Jim Shooter never did research on the title “Candy Wars.” (Howe also quotes Shooter as saying that the whole point of the comic was to “teach kids how to play with the toys,” which is more of a reason for being than this episode ever comes up with.)