During its first season, Tea Leoni’s 1990s sitcom The Naked Truth—an erratic, messed-up show that I used to watch regularly, just to see Leoni and Holland Taylor tear it up—featured a character whom everyone referred to, even to his face, as “Stupid Dave.” (He was played by Mark Roberts, now the creator and executive producer of Mike & Molly.) The thing is, Stupid Dave wasn’t stupid; as played by Roberts, he was mentally challenged. He was also meant to be very sweet, so it’s not as if the other characters had any reason to want to insult him. (The show premièred a few months after Forrest Gump cleaned up at the 67th Academy Awards. Maybe ABC was pressuring everyone who was creating a show for them that fall to shoehorn in a loveable simpleton.) Midway through the season, it must have dawned on someone that everything about this setup reeked, because the show did a whole episode devoted to having the characters decide that it wasn’t right to call their friend “Stupid Dave”—and then they just dropped it.
I was pretty hard last week on the first half of Raising Hope’s two-parter about Maw Maw being put in a government-run nursing home; I thought it summed up everything queasy-making about the show’s use of the character. I just watched that episode again, and I still think most of the jokes fail to land, but tonight’s episode does make it look as if the show is trying to address what I’ve come to think of as its Stupid Dave problem. There’s no way around the fact that Maw Maw is a sick old woman with dementia who exists to do freaky shticks, but at least the show has now gone a little out of its way to concede that the way her family has treated her has sometimes been more disconcerting than funny. It even goes a little out of its way to concede that Shannon Woodward’s Mona Lisa deadpan is occasionally distracting. Gathered together with the Chances to hatch a plot to spring Maw Maw from the nursing home, Sabrina says, “So far, we’ve decided which random household item will represent each one of us. And I still don’t think it’s funny you made me the nutcracker.” “Oh, it’s not what you think,” Burt says. “It’s not because of that scary, vacant stare you do. It’s because of the way you’re always breaking Jimmy’s balls.”
My other big problem with the show these days has to do with its fanciful, cartoonish broadness, which threatens to erode its ties to the real world—which, in turn, have always been Raising Hope’s best source of comedy. Tonight’s episode doesn’t turn back the dial on any of that, but it does prove that fanciful, cartoon broadness that’s funny is a lot more forgivable than any other kind. There’s a pretty good fantasy sequence illustrating Burt’s plan for a commando raid on the nursing home, which involves smuggling in 75 red velvet cupcakes dosed with knockout medication, and there’s an even better punch line when Virginia shoots the plan down by telling Burt, “This is about you wanting to lick the bowl after I bake 75 cupcakes.” They instead settle on a plan that’s not much less Lucy-Ricardo-on-acid than Burt’s, but the important thing, aside from establishing that Woodward can really rock a magician’s assistant costume, is that seeing Maw Maw being well looked-after serves as a reality check for Virginia. Instead of resorting to bolt locks and spray bottles, the nursing home staff have been experimenting with kinder, gentler ways of getting Maw Maw to behave, such as offering her pills with a Pez dispenser and getting her to eat carrots by telling her that they’re actually Japanese pickles. Virginia realizes that “I just lost patience over the years and started treating her crappy,” and the family slinks home, having made the selfless decision to leave Maw Maw where she belongs.
Cloris Leachman’s contract being pretty iron-clad, the selfless decision doesn’t extend past the final commercial break; Maw Maw eventually freaks out after being denied taffy, creates a hostage situation with the critters in the animal therapy lounge, and compels her social worker (Jenny Slate, back from last week and still killing it) to call in the Chances to lasso the batty old loon. “Finally, somebody who knows how to control me!” says Maw Maw, as the Chances subdue her and take her home, as the state’s interest in Maw Maw’s well-being goes the way of all Armin Tamzarians. The episode fades out with the whole family together at home, while Virginia’s voiceover vows to be a better senior caregiver in the future. If that comes with a pledge to be funnier about it than the show was last week, I’m all on board.
- When the Chances first visit the nursing home, it’s decorated for Thanksgiving, and they point out that the holiday is a long ways away. The guy at the front desk explains that many of the residents don’t live long enough to enjoy their favorite holiday again, so they celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving every three weeks. News of Maw Maw’s meltdown interrupts the Chances’ Thanksgiving dinner, so the show doesn’t need to throw any titles up on the screen or resort to a fast-motion dissolve to tell us that time has passed between scenes. A little tip on efficient sitcom storytelling to all you aspiring writers out there, from your friends at Raising Hope!
- Virginia back-talks a government employee: “You can tell the state that three years ago, we earned enough to pay taxes, so they work for me.” 47 percent humor!
- Even Dancin’ Dan semi-justifies his expanded role in the two-parter’s first half when Burt rents him Maw Maw’s room, thus giving Burt the opportunity to say how close he feels to Dan: “Apparently he got most of the blood I donated last year, so we’re practically related.” In exchange for the room, Dan gives Burt the “I’M WITH STUPID” T-shirt that Jimmy lost last week and a pledge to go halfsies with him if he ever finds a bag of money in the woods.
- I laughed at a joke that will only be intelligible to those who have seen Cocoon. I’ve been waiting 27 years for something that I could point to as justification for the time I spent watching Cocoon, and by God, I’m taking it.