On the surface, Raising Hope is a good-natured little joke machine of a show, about the wacky antics of some likable but tacky-ass people. Which, all by itself, is a fine thing to be, so long as more of the jokes work than not, and the show’s attitude toward those people doesn’t slip and become condescending. Part of what makes it one of the more interesting comedies on TV is that it does reserve the right to veer off into stranger corners of its characters’ psyches than most shows would care to know about, and to treat those aspects of their lives with an unusual combination of affectionate mockery and something approaching awe. Jean Renoir once summed up his approach to character, and tragedy, by saying that the terrible thing is that everyone has his reasons. Raising Hope’s approach to character, and comedy, is based on the observation that some of those reasons are like miraculously weird natural rock formations and animals that are thought to have gone extinct but were really just hiding, for fear that zoologists wouldn’t be able to discover and classify them without giggling.
“What Happens At Howdy’s…” starts out as a simple riff on the cliché of the wild bachelor or bachelorette party. To the disappointment of all his male friends, including his father, Jimmy doesn’t want one. Every time he’s tried to let his hair down, he’s ended up going down a questionable path, such as having had sex with a serial killer or getting his wedding tackle pierced, with the result that it now whistles when he’s feeling frisky, and Sabrina sometimes thinks that tea is brewing somewhere. He’s fine with having a party, but his idea of entertainment is a stimulating round of Mad Libs. Burt and the others are prepared to meet him halfway on this, but not an inch further than that. When he tallies the results of the first round, the result goes: “I was ‘bored’ in my ‘bored’ hat so I went to my ‘boring’ room, where I saw a giant ‘bored” that was eating my giant ‘this sucks.’” As Jimmy points out, this passage contains narrative flaws.
To the rescue comes Frank, who has hired Doug to make a video of the night’s proceedings. (“This doesn’t have to be recorded,” protests Jimmy. “You could say that about every Matthew McConaughey movie ever made,” says Frank, “but that didn’t stop Hollywood, and it won’t stop us.” Frank, dude! You have got to see The Lincoln Lawyer!) But this is part of Frank’s cunning scheme to stop the wedding, first by showing Jimmy pictures of Sabrina picking her nose, and then—when these horrific images do nothing to dispel his ardor—by dragging the whole party over to the bachelorette party that Virginia is throwing for Sabrina, where he expects to find her engaged in shameful debauchery. But the only shameful thing going on there turns out to be the pizza boy giving Maw Maw a lap dance. “Quit staring, Jimmy,” Maw Maw yells, “you’re making this awkward!”
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Finally, Frank plays his trump card: He gets Jimmy drunk enough to “marry” him, not letting on that he has already surreptitiously obtained a marriage license with Jimmy’s signature and means every word. When Frank refuses to grant Jimmy a divorce so he can marry a woman of whom Frank disapproves, things look hopeless until the family comes up with the idea of having Jimmy agree to move in with Frank, so that he’ll be driven crazy by all the annoying things Jimmy does, and will be happy to give him up. Jimmy doesn’t really think of himself as someone who does a lot of annoying things, but Sabrina and his parents are happy to present him with a list. But when he goes through his full repertoire with Frank, he gets his first-ever taste of unconditional love. Frank is even delighted that Jimmy swigs half a can of soda and puts the remainder back in the fridge. (“Awesome! I’ve always said that the problem with soda is that it’s too bubbly, and there’s too much of it in each can.”) Jimmy is ultimately moved to defend Frank, who doesn’t even complain about his “horrible singing”; instead, “He harmonizes, and brings me back on key, and if that’s not a metaphor, I don’t know what is. I mean it. I don’t know what a metaphor is, and Frank wouldn’t judge me for that.”
Of course, the whole episode is a metaphor, for the resentment that guys feel toward the women who threaten to take their male pals out of the playground and shit down their bromances. The sheer, weird directness of the metaphor enables the show to dig deeper than most sitcoms, which dance around these feelings while treating them as more normal than a mature romantic relationship. (Burt even suggests that Jimmy should have sex with Frank, on the theory that this will cause Frank to get sick of him that much faster.) And with Todd Giebenhain’s Frank, the show has the right character, and actor, to push it all the way into the red zone.
In classic-sitcom terms, Frank is Raising Hope’s Kramer, except that Kramer was just a weird guy who did crazy shit (while getting laid like a bandit), and Frank, who is mostly kept in reserve, sometimes claims center stage in a way that reveals him to be an understandable, almost relatable type, a lonely guy living in his own world, where he gets to decide what the social rules are. The amazing thing is that, in those moments, Giebenhain makes you aware of Frank’s feelings, including his pain, without ever sentimentalizing him, or even asking for sympathy. The last few minutes of this episode make the best possible case for Frank as a good person deserving of love—and then, in the last seconds, Frank says something disgusting and flashes the grin of someone the whole world would want to be on the receiving end of a restraining order. Tip your hat.
- Poor Gregg Binkley mostly gets dumped on when he’s mentioned in these reviews at all, so I should say that he’s much funnier than usual in this episode, which gives him the chance to smile and act elated, mainly because he’s drunk off his ass. Maybe things should go Barney’s way more often.
- Burt asks Virginia, who’s been stockpiling party favors for Sabrina’s party, what’s in the vegetable crisper. “Bags of little penises,” says Virginia. “Whose are they,” asks Frank, struggling to treat this as reasonable information, “and why do they need to be kept crisp?”