Last week, Slate ran an article by June Thomas analyzing Raising Hope through the prism of Martha Plimpton’s politics (expressed through many a Twitter communiqué), especially those involving reproductive rights. Tonight’s episode tackles that subject more or less head on, with Virginia being hired to house-sit for one of her clients and getting all involved in whether the man’s teenage daughter should have sex with her boyfriend. I was inclined to vote no, but that may have had something to do with the fact that the boyfriend was a dead ringer for I guy I knew in college who smelled like a cat lady’s old carpet and was in possession of early Black Sabbath albums so obscure that their existence would come as news even to Ozzy Osbourne. In the end, Raising Hope’s message regarding teen abstinence comes down to: Hey, I sort of know what I think, but when I look at you two crazy kids and think about what I was doing at your age, it occurs to me that it’s complicated. In this, the episode is probably more reflective of what how people really feel about teen sex than most sitcoms that have grappled with it. It’s also funny, which made it a win-win in my book.
The episode opens with the teenager, Natalie, rampaging around the house, hurling abuse at her dad in the special way that only a teenager can. (“Look at the holes!” she yelled, brandishing a pair of jeans the useless fool had dared to buy for her. “They’re in all the wrong places!”) Virginia’s Hispanic co-worker leans close to her and hisses, “Be invisible,” summing up both a whole way of life and a time-honored survival strategy in two words. Virginia’s first instinct is to have nothing to do with this wild-haired banshee, but after checking in at home, she realizes that she is no position to turn away a chance to make some extra money. When she heads back to the big house where Natalie awaits her return as the minotaur awaited Theseus, she chokes up as if reporting for another tour of duty. “What if I sell my plasma,” Burt calls after her, “to those people who make the fancy TVs?”
But when Virginia catches Natalie in bed with Pauly Shore Junior, she suddenly becomes deeply invested. Not that she isn’t as concerned about not sounding like an old fart as she is about the state of Natalie’s hymen. “I’m like Alicia Silverstone,” she says, “and Alicia would say that you are clueless about teenage sex!” Since Natalie doesn’t know who Alicia Silverstone is, this pitch has the opposite of its intended effect. Meanwhile, Burt, who can only think about how teenage sex saved his own life, is busy giving the boyfriend advice designed to get him to within “a slow song and a wine cooler away from closing the deal.” Ferociously determined to save Natalie from a face worth than death—and if that sounds like hyperbole, seriously, you have to see this boyfriend—Virginia appoints herself her “ghost of teen pregnancy future” and drags everybody back to the Chance house so that she can provide a 3-D vision of what getting knocked up at 15 does to your life.
In just about every other sitcom I’ve ever seen with a setup like this, Virginia would lead Natalie back to the house on the very day that a Publisher’s Clearinghouse spokesman happens to be standing on the front porch with a giant check, Jimmy has been awarded his own high-paying late-night talk show hosting job, and the pork-chop tree has fully sprouted. Raising Hope goes its own way, of course. Things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, for sure: Maw-Maw is under the delusion that Jimmy is her late husband, and because Maw-Maw’s cooking is terrific when she thinks she’s pampering her man, Jimmy has chosen to go with it. (Sabrina has inexplicably disappeared from the house—is the grocery store still standing?—just long enough for this to happen. When she returns, she’s less than charmed to find Jimmy and Maw-Maw snogging in the living room: “You know I love your quirky family, but you nailing your great-grandmother is a real deal-breaker.” In the end, she comes around, and for the sake of fabricating a sweet memory for Maw-Maw, she permits Jimmy to pitch woo at her, so long as he understand that he’s only “allowed to touch anything above the waist,” since “her boobs are so low, that really doesn’t allow for much of anything.”)
The episode includes a climactic earth-shatterer, when Burt confesses that he sabotaged the condom he’d used with Virginia because he wanted to get her pregnant and bind her to him with hoops of steel. He hadn’t known what else to do, because she was so far out of his league. Like hell, says Virginia, I was wearing a back brace. This, in Burt’s eyes, only made her more desirable: “It was like you were hot and bionic.” Again: On any other sitcom, a little thing like a man admitting to the wife with whom he’s been mired in poverty and soiled diapers since their mid-teens that he dictated their future by poking a hole in a rubber would result in a night of sleeping on the couch, at the very least. Virginia is so turned on by the discovery of just how badly teen Burt wanted her that they basically do it in front of Natalie and her boyfriend, which is probably meant to solve the problem by turning them off sex until they’re both hurtled far past the age of consent. That’s a good thing. Otherwise, Virginia probably would have tried to shut down their itchy, twitchy feelings by forcing them to watch Jimmy and Maw-Maw make it to second base.
- Turns out that Virginia and Burt’s first date movie was Beverly Hills Cop II. Unless I’m misremembering a 25-year-old copy of Us Weekly that my mom left in the bathroom, that was the movie that broke up Brigitte Nielsen and Sly Stallone. I’m glad to learn that, as a romantic game-changer, it wasn’t strictly limited to serving the dark side.
- Natalie tells Virginia that she isn’t a naïf when it comes to safe sex: In class, they taught her to put condoms on cucumbers. “Putting them on cucumbers,” Virginia cautions her, “is just setting yourself up for a disappointment.”
- In the glimpses we get of Jimmy as seen through Maw-Maw’s eyes when she thinks he’s Wilfred, he’s a smoothie with a Clark Gable mustache, a red smoking jacket, and a pipe who says things like, “Horsefeathers, you dumb Dora, you know I think your cooking’s swell.” He’s a little like a more domesticated version of Michael Cera’s wild-man alter ego in Youth In Revolt. I enjoyed seeing this side of Jimmy, especially since I’ve been worried that landing Sabrina renders Jimmy more, rather than less, of a clumsy doofus. Now that he’s gone there, I wish the show would take a chance on letting Lucas Neff inject a dash more rico suave into the lad.