How political a show is Raising Hope? It's certainly not as explicitly confrontational as Roseanne, which was the last great sitcom about the working poor (or, at least, about a family whose grip on middle-class security was sometimes slippery enough that they could feel the cold wind blowing up their skirts). And it doesn't have the claim to being outright satire that The Simpsons has. But in times like these, when the highest-rated cable news channel in America has a seemingly bottomless supply of “experts” ready to agree with its rich talking heads that people hoping to extend their unemployment benefits are deadbeats and moochers, and a major presidential candidate can call the President a “snob” for having encouraged people to get enough education to give themselves a chance at breaking out of minimum-wage purgatory, it's easy to see any show that asks you to like and sympathize character who are just scraping by without romanticizing them as having, if not a political agenda, at least a certain kind of political attitude. Tonight, Raising Hope puts its money where its mouth is and attempts actual political satire. The buckshot flies in all directions, but in satire, that can be a sign of mental health rather than a cop-out. So it's not because the show manages to see something ludicrous in every viewpoint that the episode often just feels confused.
Things start out quite promisingly, with Sabrina at the helm of the inevitable Occupy Natesville protests. Jimmy is psyched. “Apparently there's some awful stuff going on,” he explains to his parents, in the familiar tone of someone whose eyes have been opened by the person he's finally sleeping with and is now eager to spread the gospel. “The good news is, it really isn't our fault we're poor.” Virginia is not persuaded. She may not know from Saul Alinsky, but she knows what her personal stake is in this protest business. “All I know is, protesters leave a mess. Doctors hate diseases, cops hate robbers, and maids hate messes.” But she does encourage Jimmy and Sabrina to take Maw Maw along (“Wanna go yell at the government?”), so that Maw Maw can wig out and pull a Wanderlust, horrifying the spectators and TV cameras by pulling her top up and burning her bra. The unintended reminder of Wanderlust does the show itself no favors. Once the protest is under way and the 99-per-centers are shouting slogans at the dazed-looking cops, you long for a line as trenchant as “Their bulldozer is a bully-dozer!”
Once the cops actually start threatening to arrest people, everyone scatters except for Sabrina. (Among the last to flee is Frank, who explains, “I can't risk going to jail. From behind, all you can see is my long hair and child-bearing hips.”) Tossed in the clink, Sabrina is at the mercy of Rikki, a guard who claims to remember her from their scouting days as Little Beavers, and also claims to remember how cruelly Sabrina dumped her as a friend as soon as she made the cheerleading squad. Rikki is played by Katy Perry, outfitted with a thick lady 'stache and a Nicole Kidman wig that was put through the washing machine at the wrong temperature. It's the kind of role, and performance, that gets a celebrity whose previous acting experience has mostly been with cartoon characters, Muppets and Russell Brand (insert joke here) praised for being a “good sport.”
Mary Birdsong is infinitely more of a hoot as Natesville's Mayor Hellman, who is first seen delivering a smiling TV address to the protesters: “I want the protesters to know that I feel your pain. And I assure you that it is nowhere near as painful as pepper spray fired at close range.” It turns out that Virginia is looking to the Mayor to provide a strong female role model for little Hope, a position that is hers pretty much by default: “Her mother was a serial killer, Maw Maw is a crazy old coot, and I scrub toilets for a living.” Virginia doesn't even mention Sabrina, but she doesn't need to. After starting out strong in the protest scene, Sabrina is reduced to trying to keep Rikki the batshit stalker-guard mellow by agreeing to earn her unfinished scouting merit badges, by performing such tasks as singing the Little Beaver anthem. “I'll never give up,” she trills, “because a Little Beaver can't be licked!” Once that's over, Rikki hands her a supply of cookies, forces her to squeeze into a Girl Scout uniform, and shoves her into a cell populated with what looks like all the guys who played extras in a below-deck scene in all three Pirates Of The Caribbean movies. While the scurvy dogs drool and stare at Shannon Woodward's embarrassed knees, Rikki says, “These guys haven't seen cookies or beavers in a long time.” This stuff is never in any danger of being funny, so the only question is how fast it can go from awkward to cringe-inducing. It gets there at warp speed.
While all this is going on, Virginia is ingratiating herself with Mayor Hellman, covering for her when the poor drunken thing—summed up by Virginia as “a great mayor” but “a mess as a person”—is in hysterics over her romantic difficulties with powerful real estate developer and alpha-male asshole Richard Galleria. As Virginia sees it, it's the least she can do for the woman who “got the library moved indoors” and “got the strip club to put up drapes.” But the Mayor insists on rewarding Virginia with three wishes. As it happens, while cleaning up after the protesters, Virginia has befriended a Mexican woman who told her about the shoddy conditions at the park in her part of town, as opposed to those at “the white people's park.” (Virginia is shaken by what she's heard but also tells her, “They don't call it the white people's park anymore. They changed that back in the '60s.”) So Virginia uses one wish to get some improvements made, and soon the Mexican woman is rejoicing, “Now you don't have to be white to slide!” Burt, getting into the spirit of civic improvement, asks that stop sign be installed in front of their house, so that the Chances can spend their free time waving at people and making everything that much friendlier.
Naturally, Virginia chooses to use her final wish to get Sabrina sprung from jail, but once Her Honor gets a look at Jimmy, with him in his T-shirt and her with her beer goggles on, everything falls apart. It all falls back together for the happy ending, but it feels as if a few pieces have gone missing. Virginia restores order to the universe by getting the Mayor back in her debt by bailing her out again when she throws a brick at her boyfriend's house. The last image, of Virginia sitting on a park bench named for her and telling Hope about how she's the power behind the woman who's the most powerful woman in Natesville seems meant to be unironically inspirational. It's clear that it's Virginia who's the real master fixer, but I'm not sure whether she's also meant to be deluded or whether there's supposed to be something to her belief that the hot mess she keeps bailing out really is a good mayor. It's kind of like The Great McGinty recast as a feminist empowerment story with the last act missing. And though I'd love to see more of Mary Birdsong, that seems unlikely, since Virginia's name on that park bench is probably meant to signal that the Mayor's largesse has been extended to its limits. The show isn't going to turn into I Dream Of Jeannie, with Virginia solving every problem that comes up by turning on her police scanner to see if the Mayor has gone rogue again and is only one wacky rescue stunt away from owing the Chances another favor.