I liked last week’s episode, which looked as if it had been Scotch-taped together from the best bits of three different scripts that had each gone in their own directions, but somehow managed to overlap. I didn’t hate tonight’s episode, which feels about the same way, except this time there’s no overlap: The three storylines just race off, or stagger blindly around the living room, resisting any attempt to come together and form a coherent half-hour of television. There are some laughs in it, and it’s not hurting anybody. Shannon Woodward has one awesome speech about how she’s just not cut out to be a mother (“God tried to tell me by giving me narrow hips, but I didn’t listen!”) that may be the best-sustained showcase the show has given her for a while, and I’m not too proud to admit I’m impressed when I sit down in front of the TV on a Tuesday night and see that, in order to entertain me, somebody has created a CGI rapey squirrel. If all this sounds a little begrudging as praise goes, it’s because the whole thing ended up feeling like a little less than the sum of its parts.
The richest potential story material has to do with Sabrina and her aforementioned relationship with Hope—or, as the Chances seem to fear, her lack of same. The Chances stage an intervention to confront her with what they see as her disengagement from Hope when it comes to serious parental duties, She’s great at playing in the mud with her when she’s supposed to be taking her to the dentist. But her idea of following through is to bring Hope back from a trip to the carnival, hand Virginia a goldfish in a plastic bag filled with water, and say, as she takes her leave, “You’re gonna need to get a filter and a tank within the next three hours.” (Suddenly, I was jolted out of my own TV entertainment experience by a belated realization about why all those goldfish I brought home from the carnival were dead the next morning.)
Sabrina agrees to try to get better at this by watching Hope for a weekend, while Jimmy and Barney are playing auxiliary policemen together. There was a reason provided for why this seemed like a good idea to Jimmy, but it washed right by me, and I can’t help but suspect that this whole storyline grew out of someone imagining Lucas Neff and Gregg Binkley sharing a low-rider tandem bike while wearing homemade rent-a-cop “uniforms,” and deciding it was hilarious. It’s okay, but the whole amateur-cop story peaks before they even hit the streets, when Jimmy arrives at the grocery store and Frank mutters, “Anyone else smell pig?” (It’s also Frank who points out that Barney is known as “Badass,” not because of his legendary stature among law enforcement officials, but “because you have an unattractive rear end.”) The main effect of the Jimmy-and-Barney scenes is to make you wonder how Sabrina and Hope are getting along during the middle section when they drop out of the episode.
So, about that rapey squirrel. It figures in the Burt-and-Virginia story, which begins with Burt regaling her with thrilling tales of the horrors he witnesses every day “on the front lines of Mother Nature’s twisted playground.” (Initially, Virginia is sore at Burt for not specifying that his true-crime tales are about squirrels. “If you’re gonna come home with these stories,” she tells him, “you have to lead with the species, so I’ll know if I should care.”) In the end, they set out to capture the varmint and bring it to justice. The fact that a lot of this struck me as funny may have to be chalked up to the fact that Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt could sell air conditioners to polar bears, but you don’t question funny. The really funny thing is the meta moment when Jimmy checks out what his parents were up to and mutters, “I’m so happy I’m not really involved in this story,” because he doesn’t really seemed involved in his story, either.
- When Sabrina finds out that the Chances want to talk to her about her relationship with Hope, she’s relieved, because she thought they wanted to talk to her about her habit of eating dirt. Has Sabrina always eaten dirt? If so, it’s been flying right by me all these years. In any case, it was worth having Sabrina eat dirt just for Burt asking her if there’s a five-second rule.
- Sabrina’s monologue about her weekend with Hope, in a nutshell: “First, she wanted to watch her Dee The Dancing Dolphin DVD. And I love Morgan Freeman, but somebody has got to tell him that it’s okay to turn down a job.”
- At the very end, just when Sabrina is ready to throw in the towel, Hope unexpectedly addresses her as “Mommy.” The folks at Raising Hope probably think that rounding off a mediocre episode with a moment like that will put the fans in a forgiving mood, and by God, they know us too well.
- The reference to Hope’s favorite movie is oddly prefigured by a remark of Burt’s when he and Virginia are talking about how members of the woodland community aren’t intelligent enough to help squirrels who are threatened by sexual predators. Burt pointed out that dolphins might be, but called them “arrogant bastards” who’d be about as useful in a bad situation as Kitty Genovese’s neighbors. Two semi-snarky references to dolphins in the space of about 10 minutes feels like a lot. Did one of the writers have a traumatic childhood experience watching Flipper or something?
- No sign of Cloris Leachman this week, but Martha Plimpton does pretend that she’s in the bathroom during the cold opening. Then the show goes back to forgetting she exists, as it usually does when Leachman sits an episode out, but I still appreciated the gesture.