Because everyone knows that Fox is the Love Network—Who doesn’t look forward to those annual Valentine’s Day bumpers featuring Rupert Murdoch as Cupid, wearing a diaper and feathery paste-on wings and aiming a bow and firing arrows at his wife, while she slaps them away with her powerful right forearm?—it makes sense that, for its February 14 episode, Raising Hope would raise the temperature on the ongoing story of Jimmy’s aching love for Sabrina, who has always treated him with the tender, thoughtful regard most people reserve for their Chia Pets.
I was not especially looking forward to this episode. The Jimmy-Sabrina romance has always seemed like a non-starter to me, a distraction from the main action that was about as likely to develop into something as Gilligan was likely to get off that island. And last week’s episode (thanks, Myles!), in which Jimmy got his mother involved in trying to break up Sabrina and her boyfriend Wyatt, felt like a familiar kind of holding pattern. When the Chances’ best efforts took Sabrina and Wyatt right up to the edge of ending their relationship, only to have them decide, in the last minute, to instead move in together, you could practically hear Gilligan and the Skipper telling Jimmy, “We know just how you feel, kid.”
But notwithstanding last November’s Thanksgiving episode—which miscalculated how thankful some of us would be for the chance to see Lee Majors in a chicken costume—holidays often bring out the best in Raising Hope. That Thanksgiving show had an especially corny, mothball-smelling plot about the Chances borrowing someone else’s house to impress Burt’s parents, and “Jimmy’s Fake Girlfriend” unfortunately hinges on a plot idea that may be even mustier. As the title may have led you to guess, Jimmy tries to bring Sabrina’s hidden feelings for him to the surface by acquiring an imaginary girlfriend, in the hope that this will make her jealous.
Compared to some of the other smart comedies on right now, such as Community (okay, maybe not “right this very minute” right now), Raising Hope might be called a neo-classical kind of sitcom. Those other shows pull out old sitcom gimmicks that everyone’s seen a million times in order to comment on them and make viewers laugh at just how overly familiar these gimmicks are. Raising Hope knows that it’s pulling out moves that we’ve all seen before, but its attitude might be that these old comic ideas must have potential, or nobody would have wanted to do them twice, let alone a million times. The show does have its meta side, but then, so did Green Acres. It really just wants to find a way to make these situations play in a way that will fresh and make sense in contemporary terms. When it works, and it’s funny, it’s as satisfying as any comedy on TV.
You could feel that a little extra care had been taken with this episode from the way the pieces fit together, without any digressions that seemed to be there just to pad out the script with some random weirdness that might get a shock laugh. (Maybe Maw Maw was a near-silent, shadowy presence because there wasn’t any way to give her much to do without wrecking the tone. Then again, maybe Cloris Leachman had a dental appointment. What do I know?) It begins as the story of Burt and Virgnia’s quest for a hobby they could do together in their spare time. Experiments with scrapbooking (which Virginia derides as “a humiliating reminder that we haven’t done anything with our lives”), pottery, Hacky Sack, and the local branch of the Debby Boone Fan Club come to nothing, and their flirtation with gardening can be summed up in this conversation: “Now what?” “Wait for it to grow.” “This sucks.” Their gateway to fun turns out to be Jimmy’s misery over Sabrina and Wyatt moving in together. Burt tries to counsel him in the sage wisdom of practical defeatism. (“Surely there’s another girl you can admire from afar and never make a move on? What about that redhead at the dry cleaner’s? She’s got a boyfriend.”) But Virginia, taking the bull by the horns, calls up Sabrina and subtly plants the information that Jimmy has a new sweetheart: “He’s been making tons of intercourse, so if you see him, tell him to call his mother,”
Jimmy isn’t too thrilled about this plan until he reports to work at the grocery store and discovers that it seems to be working; Sabrina does appear to be jealous, or so one might reasonably infer from her referring to Jimmy’s imaginary girl as “Bucktooth McBig-butt.” (Trying to gauge the level of her annoyance, Jimmy asks Frank if she’s been acting snippy to him. “Everyone’s snippy with me, ” says Frank, his tone suggesting that he’s deeply hurt by what he suspects may be a trick question. “I’m Frank,”) In order to pump up the volume, Jimmy has to find someone to take on the role of his girlfriend, so Barney introduces him—and, to their excitement and delight, Burt and Virginia, who immediately know that they’ve found the hobby of their dreams—to his improv theater group, The Room For Improvment Players. (That is not a typo.)
Ashley Tisdale, taking a break from her voice-acting chores on Phineas And Ferb, plays the woman who bravely agrees to do test her acting chops in a real-world setting to help chart the course set by true love’s compass. Tisdale is a stitch as an overcommitted theater freak playing her idea of the perfect girlfriend for driving another woman crazy. Her character lives in the space where the line between theater exercises and mind games gets blurry; one scene, in which she tries to prove herself to a doubtful Jimmy by showing how convincingly she can pretend to find him irresistible, is like the sitcom version of Naomi Watts’ screen test in Mulholland Drive. She constantly slips into character, announcing her return to our universe by shouting, “Scene!” and at one crucial point tells Jimmy, “I totally lied. I’m not really an actress. Scene within a scene! Got you again, that’s how good I am!”
I was just starting to think that maybe Jimmy should really forget about Sabrina and develop an interest in improv so he could hang around the theater admiring Tisdale from afar, when the show arrived at the big confession/declaration of love scene. It was funny, but the big surprise is the combination of vulnerability and dawning realization on Shannon Woodward’s face as she’s watching the love letter that Jimmy’s prepared for her—in the form of a play that recounts everything that’s gone through his mind since he first laid eyes on her. It helps to sell, maybe for the first time, the notion that these two could really be a couple. The whole play scene is remarkable, because it tiptoes right up to the edge of cringe comedy, and it made me feel as if I ought to avert my eyes, but I didn’t want to miss any of it, partly because it really does feel romantic. If that’s not the spirit of Valentine’s Day in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
- Whatever happens between Jimmy and Sabrina, here’s hoping that we’ve seen the last of Wyatt, who’s been a different kind of jerk every time he shows up in Natesville. (His sticky, sanctimonious African kick and matching wardrobe from last week’s episode are already long gone; tonight, he comes across as the sort of dude who holes up in his dorm room with his b buddies and a keg on weekends, mainlining Girls Gone Wild videos.) At dinner, he excuses himself to go “tinkle.” Sabrina grouses that she knows that he’s really gone to check the scores on TV, but you’d think she’d be more disgusted about being with a guy who says “tinkle”.
- You gotta love a show that can come up with perfectly logical reasons to have people deliver the lines “I’m gonna lose Sabrina if I don’t find a fake girlfriend,”and “Burt! Stop strafing grandma!” in the very same scene.