Devoted fans of this show while recall that Burt once had a gambling problem. Tonight, in a development that will not come as a shock to anyone who is in the habit of looking up the episode titles in advance, Burt started gambling again. He was led astray during a visit to the pawn shop, a business that it makes sense would be a big part of the Chances' lives. (Looking wistfully at some butt-ugly bling, Burt said, "Every cool piece of jewelry I've ever owned is right here in this glass case.") Burt and Jimmy just wandered in hoping to buy back their motorized beer cooler, only to become enraptured at the sight of people betting on dog races they were watching on the Chances' old TV. It's always great to see Martha Plimpton playing excited, but here, Garrett Dillahunt may have had the edge on her: when Burt felt turned on by winning, he started doing things with his tongue that I've never seen done before by anyone who wasn't stradling a tree branch eating flies. Soon, Burt was caught up in gambling fever, and the show probed his sweaty desperation in an episode that carried echoes of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, and Robert Altman's California Split. Okay, it didn't really do that. But it did include a shot of Burt slurping on a juice box to the opening bars of the theme from Super Fly.
The episode had one inspired joke that kept paying out like, well, like a slot machine. Burt had to stop gambling back in the '90s because his losses were killing the family. Scolding him for gambling again, Virginia reminded him of how he'd been forced to pawn away all their nice things and raid every pool of cash in the house, and Jimmy was crushed to learn that his father had lied to him when he was a child and that Burt hadn't really taken the contents of his piggy bank so that he could put them into a retirement 401. But now, having backslid and succumbed to the terrible gambling bug inside him, Burt just kept winning every bet he placed. He kept winning so consistently that he was able to buy back all the stuff that he'd pawned; he kept winning so much that the pawn shop owner, who was also his bookie, cut him off because she was tired of paying out to him. The pawn shop owner happened to morbidly obese. In fact, the show kept cracking jokes about her diabetes, and though I may have just been in a sick mood at the end of a long day, it seemed to me that it did pretty well by the subject. Told that the person she was refusing to take a bet from really wanted to gamble, she hauled herself to her feet and said, "I want to eat chocolate cake without losing my eyesight, but that's not gonna happen either. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna get some chocolate cake."
The first time Burt was wrestling with his gambling addiction, Virginia had come up with an ingenious cure. She had convinced him that she and baby Jimmy had been roughed up and threatened by a bookie to whom he owed money, and scared him straight. Because Burt is doing so well this time that he doesn't owe anybody bupkis, that option isn't available to her this time. Trying to get a handle on the situation, she attended a meeting of a gamblers' support group. ("Welcome to Gamblers Incognito. We're not affiliated with that other group. They have twelve steps, and we only have one: stop gambling!") It turned out that both Frank and Barney were in the group, because an episode without Frank is like a day without sunshine, and if they don't occasionally give Barney something to do, the network is going to start sending down memos enquiring about the decision to spend fifty bucks adding Gregg Binkley to the opening credits. It was nice to see a touch of pathos added to both their back stories. "Three years ago," reminisced Frank, "Barney bet me I couldn't fit ten marshmallows in my mouth. Two weeks later, we were selling out blood for some action on women's bowling. Gambling is a harsh mistress."
The joke snowballed as Virginia took note of how pathetically bad all the degenerate gamblers in the support group were at picking winners and started polling them on who they liked in various athletic contests, so she could bet against their favorites. Before long, she was doing so well that the pawn shop owner was refusing to take any more of her business. So she, Burt, and Jimmy ("I got 80 dollars in my pocket. If I don't bet a sure thing, I'm done 80 dollars. I can't afford to lose that kind of scratch!") were down at the school track field, talking loudly about how much they enjoyed watching strange children, so that nobody would guess that the gym coach was taking their bets on which kid could run the fastest. Sadly, the show couldn't very well end with a solid endorsement of gambling as a ticket to a better life for the working poor, so, since it also couldn't end with the Chances losing everything and pricing homeless shelters, a deep-dark-truthful-mirror moment had to be contrived, when the Chances realized that they'd gotten so focused on their track action that they'd missed Hope's starring performance in Sabrina's play for a cast of babies, old people, and dogs, Hillary Clinton, The Woman Who Should Have Been President. This served to remind them that, as Virginia put it, there are rare, precious things that you don't want to miss because you're off at some track field making money hand over fist. Then there are the other rare, precious things, like rib ticklers about diabetes and foot amputations, and the sight of a baby playing Hillary Clinton in a wig and a pantsuit. Comedy, too, is a harsh mistress.
- A glimpse of Burt's life as a degenerate gambler in the '90s: "How does a guy with one ball win a bike race three years in a row!? Oh… less drag. Less drag!"
- Sabrina: "You know, I think there's a gambler's support group that meets in my church basement. They've also got 'em for drinkers, overeaters, sex addicts, druggies… the only thing they can't get people to go to is church."
- Sabrina's play included original songs by Shelly. This was the most challenging part of Hope's performance; trying to get her to chime in on cue, Shelly asked Jimmy, "Can she learn 'penis' by next Tuesday?" "Maybe", said Jimmy. "But how about you just write another lyric by next Tuesday?"