Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #17 - Raising Hope

4 Seasons (2010-2014)

I remember watching the pilot to Raising Hope and not being terribly impressed.  The premise was that Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) is an idiot slacker son of idiot parents Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton) who all live in with Jimmy's great grandmother Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman).  Jimmy has a one night stand with a girl who turns out to be a serial killer.  She gives birth to the baby and is executed, leading Jimmy the responsibility to raise the baby, named Hope, with his quirky family.

As dark as that premise is, the film is long on the silly.  And yet the one of the last scenes in the pilot was filled with a lot of surprising heart.

But it didn't hook me, so I let it go.  But then a year later there was an episode with Ashley Tisdale in it.  My wife and I being fans of the High School Musical series, we watched.  And it was fantastic.  So we finished the rest of the season and went back and watch everything that had come before.

Here is the key to understand Raising Hope: it is a smartly written show about stupid people.  There are a lot of low-brow comedies that are low brow because the writers have no wit.  But the creators of Raising Hope use the characters to come up with not only incredibly clever turns of phrase, but deal with complex ideas.  I've never seen a television episode of a sitcom so clearly and succinctly explain the problem of inflation and national borrowing debt in a way that was silly and intelligent at the same time.

On a small note, I liked the fact that the Chances went to church regularly.  Like the Simpsons, they are not saints, but even as they fell short of the Christian ideals, they acknowledged that there was something of value in the faith.

The show was extremely broad in its comedy, with no room for subtlety or any real drama.  But that's okay.  It never intended to have any seriousness to it.  It reveled in its silliness.  And it succeeded in being the type of show it set out to be.

Particularly Plimpton was fantastic as Virginia.  On of my favorite parts of the show was her constant mis-remembering of famous sayings or even common words.

And Dillahunt for me was a breakout star.  His Burt was so full of enthusiasm and sincerity, he through himself completely into whatever excited him.  It was so fun to watch him get excited or upset but lacking the intelligence or vocabulary to explain why.  His complete commitment to the character brought out major laughs.


"Jimmy's Fake Girlfriend" (2x14)
As you can see, Raising Hope has a long threshold.  It begins with Burt and Virginia trying to find a hobby to share in common.  Their are attempts are as varied as they are hysterical.  But the crux of the episode is around Jimmy's love for Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), who has a jerk boyfriend named Wyatt.  This had been the running romantic tension of the series.  But Virginia decides to step up Jimmy's game by making Sabrina jealous.  She gets a local actress, Tisdale, to pretend to be his girlfriend.

The results are not only incredibly funny, but the last 10 minutes are incredibly romantic and sweet with all of the silly energy that this show can muster.

The reason why this is the threshold, is because it reflects back on all that has come before it and you see how the events, the tone, and the style all fit together to create a very nice and humorous journey.  It is easy to mistake Raising Hope as a stinging satire of stupid Americans.  But that is not what it is about.  The Chances may not have brains, but they have heart and they have drive.   You can now go back and see the rest of the series in this warm, comforting light.

"Modern Wedding" (3x14)
The "Moonlighting Curse" referes to a show that loses its luster after the 2 leads end the will-they-won't-they and finally get together.  That didn't happen in Raising Hope until Jimmy and Sabrina get married.  The episode is actually very good and has a lot of heart.  But this radically shifts the dynamic of the show.  Not only do Jimmy and Sabrina no longer live in the funny squalor of the Chance home, but the center of the show shifts from Jimmy raising Hope to the adventures of Burt and Virginia.

This should have been an improvement because Plimpton and Dillahunt are the best and funniest performers on the show.  But because of this, the original main character's adventures are relegated to B-story level and it you feel some of the wind removed from the creative sales.

"I Want My Baby Back, Baby Back, Baby Back." (2x22)
It turns out that Hope's mother survived her execution and she wants custody of her baby.  The result is a loony legal fiasco and a trial that revisits the highlights of the series.  This is the funniest episode of the show that I've watched over and over.

The best part is the ending.  It is one of the only times these show feels like it touches some more serious emotions.  I remember watching and feeling a little surprised by this and touched.  And then it ends with a gag that had me on the floor.


Raising Hope is good television in the sense that you watch an episode and you feel better.  It's goal is simply to get an audience lose themselves in a world sillier than our own and feel the pleasure of some spontaneous laughs.  And that is no bad thing.

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