Raising Hope: “The Men Of New Natesville”
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Raising Hope: “The Men Of New Natesville”

This one just made me unreasonably happy. It achieved a level of unapologetic, open-hearted silliness buoyant enough to float to the ceiling, but it was also very smart silliness. It also elevated Todd Giebenhain, a handy utility player who has enjoyed occasional 15-to-20-second bursts of glory in previous episodes, to MVP status. Giebenhaim plays Frank, the creepy guy at the grocery store, and Jimmy ended up getting to know him better as a consequence of listening to Burt, who had counseled him to win Sabrina's heart by cultivating an image as a bad boy who lives dangerously. He felt that he was speaking from experience; as a teenager, Burt had "smuggled fireworks across the border, I gave cops a lot of lip, I dry-humped the school mascot at homecoming. Your mom claims she hates that kind of stuff, but hey, she let me knock her up."

Jimmy's way of acting dangerous was to eat his lunch at work while sitting on a beam high above the floor. "Guess I'm kind a daredevil," he told Sabrina while she stood below him, gazing up in confused wonder. He thought he saw a chance to further enhance his rebel-without-a-clue bona fides when Frank invited one and all to a party: "We're gonna drink some beer and blow stuff up in the park." This description was widely misinterpreted; Frank and his posse gathered to blow up stuff like beach balls and other inflatables, and they didn't blow them up until they exploded, as Jimmy had supposed, but until they became dizzy and passed out. Jimmy got enough into the spirit that he woke up the next morning on Frank's floor. "Morning," Frank greeted him, cordial as ever. "You want eggs or toast for breakfast? Keep in mind that if you say 'eggs,' you're gonna be disappointed." 

Jimmy found the question distracting. He was fixated on the scale model of the town that was taking up space in Frank's house. It included a reproduction of the Chances' house, complete with tiny replicas of six frisbees neatly lined up on the roof, where they'd lost them. It turned out that Frank had built the thing ("new Natesville") using satellite photos to achieve maximum accuracy. It was his hobby, his secret life, and also his art therapy project: He used it to work out his traumas and create a better world for himself,  a world in which, for example, his parents, who had moved to Florida, moved back because they missed him so much, and after unpacking, "we celebrated with sparkling cider, 'cause in New Natesville, my dad's not an alcoholic."

All this, including the photographs and stop-motion films of his doppelganger and the other dolls that populate New Natesville in action, was both weirdly touching and a lovingly precise parody of the work of Mark Hogancamp, as it was presented in Jeff Malmberg's documentary Marwencol, which, as unlikely cultural references adopted by sitcoms go, really gives the My Dinner With Andre episode of Community a run for its money. ("I base a lot of my life on movies," frank conceded, after name-checking the documentary. "My hair? Lou Diamond Phillips, Young Guns II.") In Malmberg's film, it was shown how Hogancamp created his own fantasy world of Marwencol, a French village that American, British, and German soldiers conspired to turn into a safe haven during World War II, while putting his life back together after a violent assault that put him in a coma for nine days and left him with permanent brain damage. Hogancamp put a doll representing himself in the town and transformed other people in his life, including his attackers, into townspeople, soldiers, and Nazis. The fishbone that Frank has been trying to cough up all these years is a high school bully named Tommy Bitzelberger (best-guest phonetic spelling). In his fantasy world. Tommy had become an extraterrestrial invader who tried to take over Howdy's but hadn't counted on the martial arts skills of "Frank, the Deli Ninja."

This detail only served to strengthen the growing bond between Jimmy and Frank, because Jimmy had once been victimized by the same bully, for the crime of wearing a girl's shirt. In flashbacks, this was shown to have been one time when Burt's advice was of little use to his son. The best he could do was offer doomy platitudes about "the law of the jungle," and then get the giggles, because the phrase automatically made him think of "a monkey judge with a banana gavel." It was left to Virgina to accost the kid, give him a verbal dressing-down ("You like to make fun of boys wearing girls' shirts? For your information, it's the latest thing. It's called meterosexual, only you wouldn't know that, 'cause you don't read Parade magazine!") and send him on his way, having thoroughly messed with his gender-based assumptions and sexual self-image. 

Somehow, this made the Marwencol reference seem that much more wondrous to me, since the Cro-Magnons who put Mark Hogancamp in the hospital were outraged because he'd confessed to them that he was drawn to cross-dressing. (There's a wonderful scene toward the end of the documentary, in which he laments not having the courage to wear women's shoes to the first gallery show of his work.) In an episode that was also built on Burt's concern that single fatherhood was making Jimmy too girly, to the point that he was disappointed to catch Jimmy playing with dolls when he'd been considering the possibility that he'd been murdered instead, the show seemed to be going out of its way to remain faithful to the kind of personal issues that inspired the creation of the work it was taking off from. It almost left the impression that someone had seen the movie and felt moved to make something of their own out of the emotions and ideas it aroused, not just knock it off for a cheap laugh. It could also be seen as Raising Hope's comment on, or contribution to, this season's big gas-bag debate about whether there's a trend on TV to show weak men blathering ineffectually about proving their manliness. Either way, its little drive-by assault on the topic of male anxiety outclassed most of the shows trying to make a living out of it.

Stray observations:

  • Raising Hope continues to get mileage out of the idea that people without money have to make their own fun, and I liked the image of Burt and Virgina hanging out in the back yard, taking turns tossing a hula hoop around each other.
  • Jimmy's first reaction to finding out that the alien in New Natesville represents his old school bully is to ask if he can stage a scene of his own avatar kicking the alien's ass. You can see friendship taking root here, though it goes without saying that Frank can't allow anything to come too easily. "He's your doll," he says. "I think it's kind of weird you're asking my permission. You don't want to show that kind of weakness in front of the alien."
  • This episode has to be counted as another half-step forward in the life of Jimmy's crush on Sabrina, since she gets very excited about the idea of Jimmy tracking down Tommy and exorcising his own demons by kicking his ass, and seems grateful for the chance to tend his wounds when he comes staggering back home. Maybe Burt's onto something.

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