Raising Hope has a terrific cast of regulars, and it’s brought in a steady stream of talented actors and comedians to mix it up with them. Tonight, it brings in Nancy Grace, playing herself, as the host of a tabloid TV show doing a story about Jimmy’s encounter with Lucy (Bijou Phillips), the female serial killer who was Hope’s mother. Bringing in celebrities to do self-mocking routines can be a tricky business, but God knows it’s done all the time. Usually, even when the celebrity stinks up the joint, the easiest way to deal with it is to just grunt something about how they’ve proven themselves to be “good sports” and move on.
In this case, it won’t wash. As a TV personality, Grace is charmless and shrill. As a comedian on tonight’s show, she’s clumsy and unfunny, though no worse than, say, Jim Belushi on an average night. But for anyone who cares about due process and basic human decency, who thinks that the justice system should have more to do with available evidence and the deliberations of thoughtful people in courtrooms than with the fevered showboating of gorgons who congratulate themselves on doing all their thinking with their spleens, she’s a goddamn menace. If Raising Hope wanted to parody Grace’s brand of self-righteous, hyperthyroid exploitation TV, it could easily have found an actress who could have done the role to a crisp; that’s what Law & Order: Special Victims Unit did when it based an episode on the Melinda Duckett case, in which a women committed suicide after Grace conducted a TV interview with her and basically challenged her to prove that she hadn’t murdered her missing son.
When Miami Vice and JAG brought in, respectively, G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North to play recurring roles, it was kind of creepy, but they were talk-radio/cable news figures whose days of actually affecting public policy were behind them. Grace might just seem to be a cable-news talking head, too, but her shamelessness and high energy level as a bird of prey have made her a much more effective demagogue. It’s disappointing to see a show as essentially good-hearted as Raising Hope implicitly giving her a thumbs-up by treating her as just another show business curiosity who can be used to boost its own ratings while demonstrating that she’s not too proud to make fun of herself. Grace’s participation leaves a queasy pall over this entire episode, and it doesn’t help that she gets to take a shot at Geraldo Rivera. It’s as if the show is saying, “Yeah, that Geraldo’s such a jerk that we’re just gonna talk shit about him behind his back, but our girl Nancy, here—she’s okay. When an episode of Raising Hope leaves you feeling like sticking up for Geraldo Rivera, something is rotten in the town of Natesville.
Maybe it’s a blessing of sorts that the episode isn’t firing on all cylinders even when Grace isn’t front and center. (It’s not as if she amounts to a small patch of spoilage on an otherwise healthy cut of meat.) Most of the episode boils down to the joke of showing how Jimmy’s store comes across when filtered through the lens of the national media. It’s not a bad joke in theory, but the show already did it just a few months ago, with the It’s A Wonderful Life-themed Christmas episode, which used the idea of a movie based on the Chances as a pretext for explaining why Jimmy might feel so embarrassed of his family and ashamed of his life that he’d wish he’d never knocked up that serial killer in the first place. The fact that the show had already used the idea of the Chances receiving unflattering national exposure as a springboard for something bigger should have served as a red light when the writers started kicking around the idea of stretching the joke out to fill an entire half hour. (Or maybe more, since this is billed as the first half of a two-part season finale.)
There are some decent jokes briefly flickering within the swirling void. Virginia’s middle name, it’s revealed, is “Slims,” which is explained as a desperate attempt on the part of her mother to score a free case of cigarettes. That’s funny, at least until it becomes clear that the funny-names gimmick has only begun to be flogged. Virginia tells Grace that, aside from the occasional outbreak of serial murders, Natesville has traditionally been a low-crime area, though there was that one time when “someone stole the giant donut in front of the Taco Hut that used to be the donut place.” The payoff for that one comes when the cameras visit Frank in his home and the giant donut is seen resting in a corner of his room as he tells the interviewer that having bodies turn up in the dumpster behind his workplace was “awesome.” Anthony Anderson drops in as the Chances’ neighbor, who, Burt explains, is a psychiatrist whose advice they sought out after Jimmy became depressed after Lucy went to prison. Actually, Anderson tells the camera, he just received a psychology magazine in the mail by mistake this one time, but Burt saw it in his hand and, after that, wouldn’t stop calling him “Doc.”
These are throwaway moments. The bigger, wilder stuff works least well of all, partly because it's not nearly funny enough to justify how completely out of character it is. Would you believe that Jimmy plowed his brief notoriety as the capturer and impregnator of a serial murderer into a role in a no-budget direct-to-video movie? Probably not, and you won’t laugh at it, either; I like Lucas Neff, but the clip we get to see of Jimmy in action is enough to establish that his comic gifts are not shown to their best advantage when he’s acting badly on purpose. (Granted, last season’s episode of Supernatural that was set in an alternate universe where Sam and Dean were a couple of TV actors named Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles set a very high bar.)
At the end, there are a couple of big surprises, the first of them being that Jimmy actually married Lucy in a Death Row ceremony that ended in a brief hostage stand-off when the bride got a little too much access to the large knife used for cutting the wedding cake. It all makes for an unpromising set-up for the finale to a season that began in fits and starts but that has mostly seemed to be on the upswing these last several weeks. For all the effort that went into constructing a big, edge-of-your-seat cliffhanger, the happiest surprises were probably the glimpses of Virginia’s cooking: both her shark melon and the plate of ham and eggtopus were frighteningly mouth-watering. If Rick Castle can have his own graphic novel in the real world, how much longer do we have to wait for Virginia’s home decorating magazine?