As LaToya alluded to in her review of last week’s episode, part of the behind-the-scenes reality of Childrens Hospital is that it’s very much a labor of love for everyone involved, meaning it’s something that the cast members can only do when their busy schedules allow, and it just isn’t possible to get every cast member for every single episode. Generally, the show masks this well, with the steady stream of high-concept episodes providing ample distraction from the absences of one or two actors—or, in the case of “British Hospital,” the entire regular cast. (It also doesn’t hurt that Valerie Flame was originally devised as a replacement for Cat Black, building in some redundancy into the ensemble.) Tonight’s “We Are Not Our DNA” is unusual then in that the absence of so many characters is actually noticeable: Cat and Glenn are missing for the second straight week, and also gone are Owen and Chief.

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That matters here to the extent that, after the big season premiere spectacle of “Five Years Later” and the White House-set craziness of “Codename: Jennifer,” tonight’s episode is about as straightforward an episode as Childrens Hospital ever makes, with the show taking an absurd spin on a topic it aggressively doesn’t understand—in this case, genetic testing—and seeing how it affects the ensemble in various subplots. Except half of the ensemble isn’t here tonight, which means the show has to give battlefield promotions to Chet and Nurse Dori and slide them into main cast roles that might otherwise have been filled by, say, Owen and the Chief. That isn’t meant as any kind of implied knock on Brian Huskey or Zandy Hartig, both of whom are great in their roles. It’s just that their characters haven’t built up the kind of comedic specificity we see with the longtime regulars; the doctors are multi-dimensional characters—even if those precise dimensions aren’t necessarily the same from episode to episode—and that gives the show a greater range of possible responses to the episode’s chosen topic.

With a character like Chet, once we get away from his fixation on the Chief—and Megan Mulally’s absence forces the show’s hand there, though it’s not unprecedented for Chet to appear in a Chief-free episode—all we really know about him is that he’s a ridiculous sad sack. As such, it’s hard to imagine what other genetic result the episode could have given him that didn’t play directly on that trait: Either the show could use the test to affirm the general disastrousness of his life or it could play against it by having the DNA test reveal him as secretly awesome. In this case, the episode leans into his defining trait by having the genetic test reveal he’s going to die later that week, forcing him to rearrange his schedule with a resignation marked only by the slightest speck of frustration with his impending doom. His genetic death sentence is a quintessentially Childrens Hospital spin on the notion of a screening revealing some incurable disease, but what we know about Chet doesn’t support much further surrealism. This is admittedly in the context of the show’s insanity, but Chet’s reaction makes complete sense and proceeds completely logically. It doesn’t help that Chet occupies a similar character space as Sy, who gets the much more inspired plotline of learning he’s actually Neil Armstrong.

I realize this reads like I’m down on this episode—and sure, I wouldn’t say this is an all-time great effort from Childrens Hospital, but that’s more a reflection of the show’s stellar track record than anything else—but it’s more that it’s instructive to examine where and how the show missteps to understand what drives the episode’s successes elsewhere. Take Lola Spratt, whose test result of liver failure means her story is awfully similar to Chet’s, albeit with the added complication of Nurse Dori’s refusal to donate her second liver because of her genetic lack of empathy. The fact that Lola has a clear path toward saving her life already means her story is going to be more fun, highlighted by running out in a hospital gown to tell Dori that she’s come up with a miracle cure for her trick knee. Since Childrens Hospital exists in a universe where literally anything could be true—and let’s not forget that universe is in Brazil, which is where they are—it’s always a hoot to see the characters blatantly lie, as the trick is for these supremely confident doctors to suddenly project a complete lack of belief in everything they’re saying. Erinn Hayes is particular adept at being convincingly unconvincing, expertly altering her speech patterns and throwing in lots of unnecessarily upbeat expressions.

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All this gives Lola—and Dori, for that matter—plenty to do, but “We Are Not Our DNA” also finds great comedy for Lola in the margins. She doesn’t have to be as single-minded as Chet about dealing with the whole imminent death thing, so there’s time for little tangents like her repeated enjoyment of Gene’s gene joke and her narcissistic monologue about the perfection of her melons. Those amusingly offbeat moments tap into the core of Lola’s character, and that’s also true of what we get in Val and Blake’s story. While the exact nature of their attraction has been defined in about 15 different ways, most episodes highlighting the pair have suggested that there’s something there, and generally one or both of them needs to be out of their right mind for that something to come out. In this case, the revelation of their siblinghood proves the perfect aphrodisiac, which, yep, I completely believe that in context. Much of the success of this storyline comes from Malin Åkerman and Rob Corddry’s ability to instantly turn on and off the sexual chemistry, but part of what makes this work are the occasional acknowledgments of the show’s insane larger reality: After all, if they are siblings, is Val really a clown, or is Blake really not a clown?

In the end, “We Are Not Our DNA” is a lesser effort from Childrens Hospital, a fact the show more or less lampshades with a close speech from Blake that just turns into a lengthy list of the show’s absent regulars and recurring players. There’s probably a better version of this episode that features a few more of the regulars, but what we get here works fine as a reminder of what a “normal”—a term I’m using very loosely and quite wrongly—episode looks like. The premise doesn’t generate quite as many moments of hilarity as one would hope, but all the moments that do land are a reminder that Childrens Hospital can do jokes unlike anything else on TV, or at least unlike anything found outside this particular section of the adult swim programming block.

Stray observations:

  • So, wait, did Lola and Dori’s test results also get mixed up, meaning they shouldn’t go around swapping livers? Not that it matters from a continuity sense—I mean, Dori literally got shot in the head last week—but that felt like one last setup in need of a punchline.
  • Joshua Malina is on hand as Gene the geneticist, and I particularly enjoyed his quickly abandoned attempt to remind the doctors that they do, in fact, have medical degrees. It’s always fun to see a speck of reality impinge on the world of Childrens Hospital, even if it’s all leading to the character being revealed as having a genetic proclivity for stupidity.
  • Thanks for letting me sub in; LaToya should be back for the next episode. My issues with this episode aside, Childrens Hospital is one of my favorites—indeed, I guess that’s part of the reason I was tough on this one—and it’s fun to try to unravel this show’s particular ball of crazy.

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