Parodies of It's a Wonderful Life tend to come in two basic flavors: those that go to outlandish lengths to show how bad things would have gotten if the protagonist hadn't been around, and those that go the contrarian, hey-that-Mr.-Potter-wasn't-such-a-bad-guy route and show how, if the protagonist had never been born, everything would have been berries and cream. It's a measure of the redeeming sweetness beneath Raising Hope's punk-ass surface that, given the chance to consider what life would have been like without its unambitious, not-too-bright hero, it can barely suppress a shudder at the thought. Jimmy may not be a world beater, but he's always been a good kid. Now it turns out that, however rough life may be with him there, take him out of the equation and the wheels would really fall off the wagon.
Or, to be more precise, take Hope out of the equation, and it all comes crashing down. "It's A Hopeful Life" begins in a movie theater, where the Chances are checking out the trailers for the new big releases. ("I enjoy Jack Black," says Virginia, "for thirty seconds at a time.") Their good times are cut short when they see a trailer for a new slob comedy called The Chances of Natesville. "How can this family of idiots raise a baby," the voiceover guy intones, "when they can barely keep themselves alive?" It turns out that the parents of Lucy, Hope's long-since-executed serial-killer mother, sold the film rights to her life, and her tangential connection to the Chances was the only part of that life that Hollywood was interested in. The Chances consult a lawyer, only to find out that cunning weasels in the studio legal department has gotten Jimmy to sign away his rights to his own life story in exchange for a beach ball. The lawyer tells them that the contract is iron-clas, but he might be able to do something "if there's something wrong with your beach ball." Sadly, there is not.
Soon, paparazzi, or at least people with cameras, are gathered around the windows outside the Chances' living room, snapping pictures of them as if they were exotic, white-trash minor celebrities, like Bigfoot or K-Fed, and undeterred by Burt and Virginia's attempt to assert their dignity by mooning them. Broken, drunk, and with his family's complaints ringing in his ears ("We're gonna be famous in the wrong way, like that no-name actor from Lost who married that sixteen-year-old girl!"), Jimmy regrets having ever met and had sex with Lucy. In his emotional condition, he doesn't register that this is a blasphemous sentiment, since it amounts to wishing that Hope, his greatest accomplishment, had never been born. Soon, he's being escorted through his alternate reality by an unnervingly articulate Maw Maw. In a world without Hope, Burt and Virginia have split up, though they're still living together in Maw Maw's house, since Burt can scarcely afford to move out. So the insults, recriminations, and bad feelings bounce freely off the walls, and they both have gone to pot in their separate ways.
It was at this point that I realized that this wasn't just a Christmas episode in the traditional, seasonal-scheduling sense of the term, but that it was a Christmas present to the performers; it was easy to imagine Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt hugging themselves and tearing up a little when she found out that she was going to get to deliver non-stop put-downs and chain-smoke while encased in a fat suit, and that he, in his single-again, broke-ass-dude seduction finery, was going to get to parade around the set looking as if he were set to begin starring in Metalocalypse: The Movie. The writers did okay by Cloris Leachman, too, especially when it turns out that Maw Maw is a ghost and that her death, as she tells Jimmy, is "your fault, too. Actually, you did me a favor. Oh, Heaven's great. But it's awfully hot there, there are a lot of fires there, and last night, at karaoke, Idi Amin and Hitler did a great version of 'Ebony and Ivory'."
At Howdy's grocery, things were just as bad, and the acting opportunties were just as palmy. When Todd Giebenhain found out that Frank had been elected the mayor of the Hopeless, alternate-universe Natesville, he must have looked like Tiny Tim waking up on Christmas morning and seeing his gold-plated crutches under the tree on. (He got to dress on in a Generalissimo outfit and deliver a TV address, and also have his face appear on a re-election poster above the slogan, "I'LL DO BETTER NEXT TIME.") This was Jimmy's fault, too, since he had never gone to work at Howdy's to help support his daughter and so wasn't there, when Frank muttered something about thinking of running for mayor, to mutter back, "That's stupid."
Even Howdy's wasn't Howdy's anymore, Barney having turned it into a liquor store staffed by hot women in low-cut tops. Sabrina was still working there, but she'd had some work done so she could fill out her T-shirt—as Maw Maw put it, "85% of that girl is what you remember as Sabrina"—and the change in the workplace environment had hardened her. In fact, she didn't even answer to Sabrina anymore: "It's Sapphire now. Ten bucks to see 'em, twenty bucks to feel 'em, fifty bucks for the greatest motorboat of your life." It turned out that Barney had been forced to make these changes to rake in the cash so he could hang onto his girlfriend—Lucy, who, having missed her fateful encounter with Jimmy, was still at large. Jimmy now had much to regret, starting with the fact that he didn't have twenty bucks.
In the end, it turned out to be a dream, which was probably for the best, since Jimmy's plan to impregnate Lucy so he could still have Hope before turning her in to the cops was something of a non-starter. Things ended as they should, with Jimmy's friends walking out of the movie that had cynically sought to profit from his misfortunes and crowding into the house to share holiday cheer, and with a season that started out a little confused hitting a sustained high note just before disappearing for a few weeks to make room for reruns and those very special Christmas-themed Cops marathons that are what the Fox network is all about. The show will be back with new episodes in late January, which, by a perfect coincidence, is right about the time I'll be able to think about watching TV again without someone having to stick a wallet under my tongue.
- Burt, admiring the Christmas tree that Jimmy had dragged home: "What, did you mug Charlie Brown?"
- I'm guessing that the poster advertising a My Name Is Earl movie was Greg Garcia's Christmas present to himself. It would smell of Grinchiness to point out that, if such a thing really existed, it would probably end up starring Jack Black,