Raising Hope has pretty much lost any grounding it had in real life and anything else connected to actual human existence. Virginia and Burt have grown more broadly cartoonish, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as they’re still played by Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt. (One of the high points of tonight’s episode is a shot of Burt, leering and nodding his head like a metronome to signify that he’s totally deaf to whatever it is his wife is saying but is greatly aroused by the passion with which she’s saying it, that blows most Emmy performances out of the water.)
It’s left Lucas Neff and Shannon Woodward stranded; wild as their material could get, their characters’ love story was the show’s best source of “heart,” and heart isn’t something this show is much interested in nowadays. It’s a loss, but one that’s left the real hairy-eyeball characters, such as Todd Giebenhain’s Frank and Kate Micucci’s Shelley, in clover. The show has always had a streak of deep silliness, but in the absence of romantic suspense—I find I don’t worry much anymore about whether Jimmy and Sabrina are going to break up, except maybe during sweeps—just how surreal is it likely to become? Tonight, it comes close to Green Acres territory.
This is the show’s Olympics episode, which makes for a change of pace when other shows on Fox (including its lead-in, Enlisted) are using their air time to remind everyone that there’s a football game this Sunday. The episode is presented in mock-documentary style, with sonorous voiceover narration by Jeff Rechner, which is a device that this show, almost alone among TV comedies of a certain age, hasn’t already jackhammered into the ground. The great inspiration here is the invention of a regular sporting event dating back to 1985, created as part of the thawing of American-Soviet relations during the winding-down of the Cold War: The International Grocery Games, pitting grocery workers from the U. S. against their Russian counterparts in such contests as stacking canned goods and assembling deli-meat platters.
This year, the games are to be held in Natesville, described by Rechner as a town with “a long history of not having much history.” Virginia, the town booster, is all tingly at the prospect of Natesville finally having something to boast about. At last, the world will know them for something other than a checkered history of mishaps and embarrassments, such as the speed with which Natesville, alone of all the states in the union, announced its surrender to the Japanese the day after Pearl Harbor. Barney, as team coach, is overjoyed at fielding a group of aces, including “the best stacker of deli meat thjs country has ever produced.”
It all ends in tears. Barney, leading the documentary crew through Howdy’s, swings open a door to reveal, on-camera, that the whole team is juiced to the gills. The team is dismissed; “their doping antics,” notes the narrator, have “left their hopes as shriveled as their testicles.” But after Virginia delivers a rousing pep talk to Barney, Frank, and her family, which everyone nods at for a variety of wrong reasons—“I looked like I was agreeing,” says Frank, “but sometimes when I’m bored, I pretend I’m a Pez dispense.”—Barney reassembles a team from the scraps of current Howdy’s employees. That includes Frank, who mans the deli platter station even though he refuses to use the slicer. “I’ll tell you the same thing I tell the customers. You can have it fast, or you can if finger-free.”
Most of the biggest laughs belong to Burt, who is brought in as a ringer, after Virginia and Barney notice his amazing skills as a competitive grocer. But the human drama belongs to Frank. It turns out that he’s been Skyping romantically with Shelley, though neither of them knows the other’s identity, because they wear big false heads during their online dates. Shannon’s is a horse’s head, and one of the Russians, Maxim, decides to seduce her. “I’ve had sex with horse, and I’ve had sex with woman,” he muses, “but never had sex with hybrid horse-woman.” That’s as charming as any of the Russian characters ever get. Happily, in the end, Frank and Shannon get past their misunderstandings and kiss, thus sparing us the sometimes nerve-racking year and a half that it took to get Jimmy and Sabrina together. Now all they need to do is move in with Burt and Sabrina, and the show can really hit the reset button.
- One of the Russians is played by the terrifying Brigitte Nielsen, presumably because she played the killer Russian boxer’s moll in whichever Rocky movie had a killer Russian boxer in it. It doesn’t feel quote like a celebrity cameo, partly because it’s not clear that she knows she’s in a comedy. But at least she gets through the episode without ever making out with Flavor Flav.
- Gary Anthony Williams also appears as TV reporter Dave Davidson, Natesville’s answer to Perd Hapley, in a flashback to the embarrassing and painful accident that ended young Burt’s heretofore unmentioned grocery career. “This day of inflated expectations”—it’s Free Balloon Day—“ended in tragedy for one unlucky stock boy, and pure enjoyment for the rest of is, because it is hilarious!”