The famous edict that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld imposed on their NBC sitcom—“No hugging, no learning”—is often misinterpreted as an expression of cranky, misanthropic eccentricity. It’s actually a declaration of professional self-respect. An awful lot of sitcoms have concentrated on hugging and learning, for the simple reason that, once you’ve gotten an audience invested in the characters, it’s a hell of a lot easier making them go “Awwwww!” than it is to make them laugh. The decision to stoop to massaging the audiences’ heartstrings on behalf of made-up people they’ve come to care about isn’t limited to talentless shlock merchants. The Mary Tyler Moore Show used to do it a lot; Taxi did it pretty frequently in its first season, then backed off when its critical reputation was secure; M*A*S*H was funny in its first several seasons and then saw itself hailed as an institution and a breakthrough in TV entertainment as it spent more of its time trying to sculpt its heroes’ faces onto Mount Rushmore. Other shows that had terrific runs for a while, like WKRP In Cincinnati, outstayed their welcome and eventually dissolved into puddles of glop.
As I’ve said more than once, Raising Hope, with its none-too-bright, working-poor characters and its taste for gross-out humor, would seem scabrous and condescending if it weren’t suffused with sweetness and warmth. The amazing thing is that its essential tenderness toward its characters never overpowers its prime objective, which is to be funny. I have no idea how the idea came about to stage the episode in which Jimmy and Sabrina get married as a parody of Modern Family. (Samantha’s mother has dispatched a film crew to record the happy event, so she won’t have to come herself, and so the audience won’t have to watch Melanie Griffith, which can be an iffy proposition. What we’re seeing on our TV is the finished result, complete with talking-head interviews.) But it takes the curse off the fact that everything is building to seeing two adorable characters who’ve fallen in love over the course of the show tie the knot, which is not an intrinsically funny situation.
Episodes in which regular characters either get married or give birth have traditionally been schmaltz-covered events, but the use of the fake-documentary format provides distance, and also a witty excuse for a plan by which the show focuses on what’s going on around the happy couple, who spend much of the episode on the fringes while Burt and Virginia quietly, heroically, iron out all the bugs that keep threatening to turn the wedding day into a disaster. Though it can scarcely have been planned, “Modern Wedding” comes at the nick of time, rescuing the over-exposed, played-out fake-documentary approach just after it was sullied on The Office, which had its own breakthrough low moment in manipulative schmaltz last week, when the boom-mike operator who’s been anonymously hanging around the Dunder-Mifflin offices for eight years suddenly stepped into the frame to comfort a weepy Pam. This episode also managed to outclass Modern Family itself, which did its best to keep its recent “we’re having a baby” episode dry by postponing the trip to the delivery room for as long as possible, but still ended with everyone gathered like the magi around Sofia Vergara in bed, while Ed O’Neill experienced deep thoughts about the magic of family.
The heroes of “Modern Wedding” are Garret Dillahunt and Greg Germann, reprising his role as the psychiatrist father of Hope’s mother (Bihou Phillips), who, you’ll remember, was an executed serial killer. Those who haven’t blocked it out may also remember that she was revealed to still be alive in the previous season finale—not the show’s finest hour—but was finally mowed down by a bus. Turns out the bus didn’t really take her out, either; Germann gingerly reveals to Burt that she survived the accident—“She’s a little fighter!”—but that “taking a bus to the skull scrambled up the ol’ noggin a little bit,” and she has reverted to a state of perpetual childhood. He keeps her in her old bedroom, having outfitted her with a shock collar, just to be on the safe side.
I’m guessing it’s that distancing effect of the fake-documentary style that makes this tolerable, but what makes it actually seem like kind of a good idea is that it gives Germann an excuse to hang around; the son of a bitch came to play, and he and Dillahunt get a rhythm going together that’s a beautiful thing to see. (“How’s your wife?” Burt asks him. “Other than the time you two kidnapped Hope, I was a fan.”) The actual wedding is a chance for the two of them to throw themselves into some wild slapstick, including a sight gag involving a religious statue that may be the single funniest thing the show has done this season. It looks a little like an outtake from American Horror Story: Asylum, and, well, it would have been one of the funniest things on that show, too, which is saying something.
“Yo Zappa Do, Part 1”:
Did you hear? Raising Hope is now a Tuesday-night hour-long event on Fox, just as Happy Endings is now a Tuesday-night hour-long event on ABC, and for the same reason: Network executives apparently discovered that they were playing host to one of the liveliest new comedies on TV (Ben And Kate and Don’t Trust The B——, respectively), and panicked, ripping those shows off the air before they had anything handy to replace them with. I’m not complaining about getting to spend twice as much time with the Chances every week, but I am tempted to point out that, if Fox had just been able to restrain themselves and allow Ben And Kate to remain on their schedule for another seven whole days, the big-deal wedding episode would have been allowed to stand on its own, and a two-part episode could have all been shown on one night, instead of being spread across two weeks. But what the hell do I know? Maybe someone at Fox just found out about cliffhangers and was very excited to have one in the pipeline.
Dillahunt looms large in the honeymoon episode, too, but the big news concerns the return of two friends-of-the-show in good standing: Camden Garcia, as Barney’s ex-wife’s son, who is now playing “America’s favorite teen wizard” on Hope’s favorite TV show, and Wilmer Valderrama, who has lost his job with the local baseball team and broken up with Sabrina’s mother, this pretty much confirming that Camden’s dad has permanently mislaid Melanie Griffith’s phone number. Barney decides to head out to Los Angeles to check on his… whatever the term is for an ex-girlfriend’s son, and as a wedding gift, he invites Jimmy and Sabrina along. The whole point of the honeymoon gets waylaid when they are accompanied not just by Hope, but by Burt, Virginia, Wilmer Valderrama, and Maw Maw, as well as a vase containing Maw Maw’s husband’s ashes. “He always wanted them to be spread in the Atlantic Ocean,” she explains, “so fish would choke on him. He hated fish.”
Once the family makes it to the West Coast, the big joke is that an eager and attractive young couple are finding it hard to get some privacy so they can have sex. This joke was considered a scream in the dog days of the Hollywood Production Code, when screenwriters working for studio chiefs who believed that audiences had a lot invested in the heroine’s virginity had to come up with ever more elaborate reasons to explain why Doris Day and Rock Hudson were doing everything together except knocking boots. Now that the couple whose intimate moments keep getting postponed are not just legally married but wearing S&M Goth outfits and one of them is holding a whip, it may be time to retire it for good. Anyway, at the end, Hope has landed a job in the TV show, so next week we can all find out how success changes her. She gets the job by blowing raspberries on cue, which means that this season’s previous instances of Hope delighting in blowing raspberries were actually long-term preparation for something. Damned if I ever saw that coming.
- I know, “fake-documentary” is kind of a clunky term, but I don’t like to write “mockumentary,” because Christopher Guest says he hates it, and seriously, who else gets a vote on this?
- Frank: “What a double standard! Barney gets to track a package, but I slip a GPS device onto my girlfriend’s car, and I have to stay 500 feet away from her.” Wait—Frank has an ex-girlfriend?
- Frank again, after Barney makes his generous offer: “If I’d known you were giving away free honeymoons, I wouldn’t have ruined every relationship I’ve ever had by being emotionally detached and slightly creepy.” Wait—relationships, as in plural?
- This episode has the best Mr. T jokes since TV Funhouse. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you find that as exciting as I do.
- Unless I missed something, the fact that Bijou Phillips is still alive might just invalidate Jimmy and Sabrina’s marriage. I’m willing to never mention it again if the show is.