One of the things I like about Greg Garcia's shows (well, about Raising Hope and My Name Is Earl; I'm much less familiar with Yes, Dear) is the way they construct whole communities of kooky comic characters. Both Earl and Hope take place in towns that are gradually built up to be filled to the brim with odd comic actors and strange people. Aside from the fact that Jimmy's cousin from the Raising Hope pilot has apparently disappeared (and will never be spoken of again!), one of the real strengths of the series has been the way that it's built the grocery store and the neighborhood the Chances live in up to be real places where, conceivably, you could move, if you were just the right kind of comedic quirky (not the creepy kind). It really helps some of the less funny episodes of the show skate by, and it gives the stronger episodes of the show a real sense of place.
I wouldn't call "Toy Story" my favorite episode of the nicely evolving Raising Hope. The running gag about Burt seeing his grandmother-in-law in assorted life-threatening situations never really came to anything, other than a pretty standard "this isn't sentimental at all but our characters would think it would be" kind of ending, and the plotting of the sneezing baby doll storyline was kind of haphazard. (Mostly, I just spent a lot of time fretting over Burt and Jimmy giving up all of that money for a toy a baby wouldn't even appreciate, but applying logic to this show is probably not a good idea, and the capper to the storyline was very nice.) But the episode contained a lot of my favorite elements of the show, including plenty of opportunities for Garrett Dillahunt to do his crazy thing and lots of chances for Martha Plimpton to play vindictive and angry, which she does oh so well.
Anyway, it's Christmastime in Raising Hope land (as it is here), and that means a variety of things. It means the Chances are attending church somewhat abruptly. (Honestly, though, I think this show would do well to keep the church as another recurring location, as the characters there are funny without being cliché or sanctimonious.) It means that Burt has but two weeks to get in on the fact that if Maw-Maw dies, he'll get to keep her house, tax-free, thanks to a loophole in the 2010 tax code. It means that Burt's also gotten a box of the big toy for the season that "fell off the truck," so to speak, and it means he's going to charge an advanced markup for the toy, the better to sock away a little cash for the year to come. And it also means that Virginia is going to try to get Hope to play Baby Jesus in the church's living Nativity.
Living Nativities are fertile ground for comedy because they place the characters of a show, whom we often know to be venal and crass, in sacred roles. Outside of Hope, none of these people has any business being anywhere near the Nativity, and that makes the very idea of, say, Maw-Maw being dressed up as Joseph funny in and of itself (even as she remains the character I'm least amused by on the show). At the same time, it's been a while since I've seen a living Nativity in a sitcom episode, possibly because most shows are anxious to avoid the religious significance of Christmas nowadays, so the plot doesn't feel as worn out as all of the other sitcom Christmas plots. I like the way that Virginia reacts to special guest star Jennifer Irwin refusing to use the "baby of a murderer" in the Nativity setup, and I like the way all of this slowly escalates, until Irwin's using a 3-year-old, fat, Asian baby Jesus. Raising Hope isn't horribly afraid of ridiculous sight gags like this, and this one mostly pays off.
I'm less sold on everything else in the show. I get that Jimmy having this baby is a way for the show to examine the ways that his parents didn't give him the best upbringing, and I do like the way the series is building both the past and present of this relationship and the way that Burt and Virginia see Hope as a way to make up for some of the ways that they messed up with their actual kid. In many ways, this is the strongest element of the series, and the flashbacks to Burt coming home with the big box of Transformers, then that big box slowly diminishing to no more toys around the young Jimmy were well-done. (Though, honestly, just how old is Jimmy supposed to be? I had him pegged at late teens/early 20s, but Transformers wouldn't have really been a going concern when he was a kid. Oh well. Again, I'm applying too much logic.)
But I wasn't all that keen about the Baby Sneezes plot, at least not until the show called in to how "Baby Sneezes" rhymes with "Baby Jesus" (honestly, I hadn't even realized this, which makes me an idiot). The mucus grossout gag felt like an earlier, too wacky version of the show, and the fact that both Burt and Jimmy were willing to go out of their way to give up all of their money to get the doll back from Barney struck me as sort of odd. C'mon! Hope's just a baby! She's going to get nothing out of this doll anyway. I get that the point is that these two are trying to right the wrongs of Jimmy's childhood, but the whole thing was a little too ridiculous for me to really buy. $2,000 is a lot of money for people like the Chances (hell, it's a lot of money for just about anybody), and while I liked that it ended up invested in the new organ, that Jimmy and Burt would so willingly part with it seemed forced to create some Christmas sentiment. Also, Barney as a grown man toy collector? Way too easy.
Still, I liked the main plot of Virginia trying to come up with a bigger and better Nativity, and I liked much of the stuff around the edges, like Barney trying to dress up the grocery store employees for the season or Sabrina playing a weirdly Italian wise man. This isn't the strongest episode of Raising Hope, which had a pretty good November sweeps, but that may be because the sentiment that tends to pop up in holiday episodes doesn't go as well with the show as the series might like. I get that the Garcia formula is 20 minutes of jokes, followed by two minutes of barely earned sentiment, but it sometimes felt like tonight's episode was pushing too hard on the latter point. Still, it's hard to entirely fault any show that features Phil from Better Off Ted cheerfully apologizing to Burt for not running over his mother-in-law and killing her.
- We'll be adding this show after the first of the year. Who will be covering it? No idea, but it probably won't be me. Much as I'm enjoying the show's evolution into a really solid, B-level sitcom, I doubt I'll have the time.
- OK, yeah, let's talk about that "time to kill Maw-Maw" plot. Frankly, it didn't work for me because the writers seemed to lose interest in it, only to bring it back at the very end. Coming up with scenarios where Burt could just watch as Maw-Maw almost killed herself must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but there were too few ways for her to avert catastrophe at the last minute, and this felt like a device out of some hackier show.
- If you ever have a few minutes, read about the production history of this show on Wikipedia. I still don't like the pilot (I went back and watched it again after coming around on the show itself), but now I wonder if it wasn't network note-d to death. The show is much looser.