Tonight’s episode returns, sort of, to the story of Jimmy and Sabrina’s plan to get married, so they can move into the house bequeathed to them by Sabrina’s grandmother. The plot turns on the old sitcom chestnut about the happy couple being forced to endure a Newlywed Game-style test of their love that, humiliatingly, makes it appear that they don’t actually know very much about each other or have anything in common. The test comes at a couples retreat run by Reverend Bob, the pastor at Sabrina’s family church, where Jimmy and Sabrina will have to tie the knot, according to the stipulations of Grandma’s will.
This news is delivered by the Chance family lawyer, played by Lou Wagner. Wagner is a diminutive man with a funny voice and a demeanor that’s somewhere between sexless and sexually ambiguous. (The first time he appeared on the show, I thought for a minute that he was Selma Green from Big Love.) Reverend Bob, who figures heavily in the action, is played by Leslie Jordan, who is another diminutive man with a funny voice and a demeanor that’s somewhere between sexless and sexually ambiguous. (He often suggests Henry Gibson doing his impression of a Tennessee Williams heroine.) Raising Hope is a show that respects the classic tradition of the comic character actor who specializes in one particular kind of stock role, which is fine, but the fact that it would feature two guys like this in the same episode says something about the problems it sometimes has in assembling the pieces of a half hour of comedy so that it has some balance and shape to it. Jordan can be pretty funny, and Wagner’s lawyer character is at least dependably, strikingly weird, but the total effect amounts to being force-fed a lot of the same flavor.
The scenes at the retreat amount to being force-fed a lot of a joke that hasn’t been fresh in a long time. Because Leslie Jordan apparently has such a terrific agent that his paycheck ate up the total budget for non-recurring guest stars, the participants consist of Jimmy and Sabrina, Virginia and Burt, and Sabrina’s mother and her new boyfriend, “Rocket” Ricardo Montes, described by an awestruck Burt as “the best thing that’s happened to the Natesville Radishes since they put that kangaroo in left field!” Naturally, when Reverend Bob asks them all questions designed to test how well they know their spouses and spouses-to-be, Burt and Virginia crush it, Sabrina’s mom and Ricardo do pretty well, and Sabrina and Jimmy crash and burn. Sabrina is dejected. Trying to explain her disappointment to Jimmy, she says, “I want us to be so connected we finish each other’s…” “Vegetables?” says Jimmy. “Laundry? Popcorn?”
Jimmy and Sabrina finally recognize that they do have a deep, loving bond, when they find themselves treed by a bear, who has been drawn to the smell of their symbolic marriage hams, after Virginia and Burt have conspired to strand them together in the woods. Give Raising Hope credit: It may waste time drilling for oil in territory that too many sitcoms have already tapped dry, but give it five minutes, and it’s likely to head off in directions that other shows wouldn’t discover if their GPS systems ran on peyote. The best part about all this was that it was actually sort of sweet and romantic, especially the details of Virginia and Burt's married love. They’ve gone way past finishing each other’s popcorn. They’ve become one person divided between two bodies, a point that’s actually best made before the retreat gets started, when they’re listening to a song on the radio, both of them waiting for the chance to yell “Tequila!” before getting out of the car.
Sitcoms usually depict this sort of condition as a nightmare to be avoided at all costs, proof that the people in a marriage have lost their youth and individual personalities. Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt somehow make it adorable. It also makes it easier to believe it when they team up for some harebrained scheme, since there’s not enough distance between their thought processes for one of them to notice that the other is nuts. The idea of stranding Jimmy and Sabrina comes from their own happy memories of having fought, then pulled it together and made up, after they fell asleep on a bus and missed their stop. Looking back on it, Burt, who had promised to stay awake, is unapologetic: “Waking Burt makes promises that sleepy Burt can’t keep.” But it all worked out, and riding home in the luggage rack, they even managed to join the two-foot-high club. For their part, Jimmy and Sabrina reconnect partly through their knowledge of bear lore, which they can credit to their shared love of Bear Week on TV. Burt is also a devotee. Asked how long it takes for a tranquilizer dart to take effect on a bear, he guesses two minutes, because “on Bear Week, they shoot the bear. Then they go to commercial for cars, gold coins, and about four other shows about bears, and when they come back, that thing’s out cold.”
The subplot serves as a showcase for Gregg Binkley. The Chances ask him to babysit Maw Maw while they’re away, and he agrees, without asking who the hell is babysitting the baby. (For all I know, they might have left her in a storage unit.) It turns out that it’s Barney’s birthday weekend, and he spends the whole time crushed because he’d assumed that the Chances invited him over on this ridiculous pretext because they were throwing him a surprise party. When Maw Maw asks if he’ll join her in boozing it up, he says, “I’m 40 years old, I live by myself, and I manage a grocery store. You think I don’t drink?” And then the punchline is that, no, he can’t really even drink. I'm not sure how much Binkley is to blame for the show's failure to make this stuff half as funny as it is pathetic. The good news is that Melanie Griffith’s dragon-mother act is getting silkier, and she’s paired with a confident, relaxed stud who knows how to be funny in a dashing way. About to set out with that tranquilizer dart, he tells her, “I shall use your sleep-inducing gun, and I will save their lives, or at the very least, return with the mangled remains of your daughter, so you can have some closure, my love.” “Wow,” Griffith says, all aglow. “You know, not many men can make the thought of losing a child so sexy.”
It wasn’t until the closing credits that I saw that I had failed to recognize this stud as Wilmer Valderrama, which might not be as embarrassing if I hadn’t been watching him just a few months ago, playing Jason Isaacs’ police partner on the ironically titled Awake. (At one point, he spots the name “Antonio” tattooed on Griffith’s arm and, in response to her asking if it makes him jealous, rolls up his own sleeve to reveal the name “Cindy” tattooed on his arm. I know enough about the romantic lives of famous people to recognize this as at least half of an in-joke. Did Wilmer Valderrama have an affair with Cindy McCain or something?) Then, an hour later, on an episode of New Girl built around a promotional tie-in for the Ford Fusion, there was a joke involving a guy who manages to score a model by telling her that he’s Wilmer Valderrama; he doesn't look like Valderrama, but a case could be made that he looks more like what the guy on That '70s Show might have been expected to grow into than the current version of Valderrama does. I’d hate to think that somebody is actually paid to coordinate this kind of thing, but my instincts tell me that, on a night of programming with a long car commercial running all the way through it, nothing happens by coincidence.