Lately, friends have been sending me pictures from People of Walmart, showing tacky people in revolting attire shopping. I’ve also received pictures of “hillbilly ‘riggins,’” ingeniously simplistic solutions to common problems, such as using a clothes hanger as a chandelier or poking holes in a soda bottle and attaching a hose to make a lawn sprinkler.
White trash culture holds a strange and enduring fascination for Americans. Many might point to The Jerry Springer Show as a starting point for such interest, but the truth is, U.S. audiences have long been fascinated by tacky “others.” On TV, we’ve laughed at the down-home Darlings of The Andy Griffith Show, the fish out of water in The Beverly Hillbillies, the mercurial wisdom on display in My Name is Earl. We’ve watched them battle big city corruption (The Dukes of Hazzard), alien attacks (“The Invaders” episode of Twilight Zone), even invasions by city folk (Green Acres).
Most frequently, these character types—short on money but even shorter on education—are objects of ridicule. The sitcom framework surely encourages disdain and distance: ain’t it funny that Granny thinks a croquet ball is a giant egg? Occasionally, however, rubes can resonate with viewers who don’t consider themselves as such, when they’re portrayed in a sympathetic way, dealing with issues and concerns similar to those affecting most viewers. We may still laugh at Granny’s misunderstandings, but we also come to know her as a fiercely proud and self-sufficient woman who will go to any length to protect her family.
The Chance family of Raising Hope follows in the footsteps of previous “white trash” TV characters—alternately horrifying and sympathetic. It’s clear from the opening scenes of Raising Hope that the Chances are immature and naïve, regardless of age, and that son Jimmy (Lucas Fell) is as clueless a young man as can be found in the history of television. A single parent at the age of 25, he’s predictably unprepared for the experience. His own parents are of little help; in fact, his cynical mother Virginia (Martha Plimpton) encourages him to dump the kid off at the local fire station, in hopes that someone might pick it up.
How Jimmy becomes a single parent comprises the plot of the series’ premiere episode. Initially, Jimmy is a lost soul, looking for some meaning in his life, although he is easily distracted from his quest for meaning. After quitting his job with the pool and lawn service owned by his dad Burt (Garret Dillahunt), Jimmy goes home and sits down to map out his future. Hours later, all he has produced is a wonderful picture fit for a DC graphic novel.
Jimmy’s world changes when he meets Lucy (Bijou Phillips), whom he believes he is rescuing from a dangerous predator. When he learns that Lucy has actually killed her boyfriend, Jimmy looksboth hurt and naïve. His mother, on the other hand, is wise and unflappable. The scene in which Virginia “captures” the dangerous Lucy is one of the comic highlights of the year, while also revealing her resourcefulness. Soon, the criminal is in prison, carrying Jimmy’s baby, and shortly thereafter, Jimmy finds himself with a six-month-old to parent.
At this point, we’re worried for the child’s welfare, as the show has set up these adults as an inept, reckless, and mostly unhappy lot. Then, when the baby, named Princess Beyonce by her mother, keeps the family up all night, Virginia and Burt show their true parenting skills. Even to the end of the premiere episode, Virginia pushes the firehouse idea, but Jimmy wants to keep his daughter, telling his mom, “I’m sick of people looking at me like I have no purpose.” Thus, the family finds that they will be raising the newly renamed Hope. It might sound like one of those “Awww” moments of so many family sitcoms; however, this scene isn’t a “happy ending” to the episode. It’s clear that the Chances are fully cognizant that their lives are about to change forever,
In addition to having a new child, Jimmy also has a potential new love interest, Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), the check-out girl at the local supermarket who helps him see more clearly via her own sarcastic and wry observations. Sabrina provides the episode with some of its laugh-out-loud moments, but the humor doesn’t ridicule the Chance clan as much as it illuminates each member’s personality. For instance, flashbacks to Virginia and Burt as new parents amuse, but they also illustrate how inexperienced they were. Their concern about Jimmy raising a child comes from a personal understanding of the unique challenges awaiting him.
As it walks a line between between mockery and compassion, Raising Hope most obviously evokes a comparison with creator Gregory Thomas Garcia’s last series, My Name is Earl. In the new show, however, the players are more believable and less caricatured (save for the dottering character of Maw Maw [Cloris Leachman], who walks around in her bra and French-kisses Jimmy, thinking he’s her late husband). Virginia, played by the incomparable Plimpton, works as a maid, a job that hasn’t exactly sweetened her on life. When Jimmy quits his job, believing there must be more to life than skimming the same pool repeatedly, she observes, “There isn’t,” just before she admonishes her coworkers who are impatient to get to the job. “You do realize,” she tells them, “We’re going to clean toilets.” In Virginia’s cynicism, we see Jimmy’s future; without a purpose and direction, he may become as bitter as his mother.
We do, in fact, laugh at Jimmy’s ignorance, most notably displayed in the “I threw up on the baby” scene featured in previews (but honestly, who hasn’t wanted to throw up when changing a baby’s diaper?) When we laugh at him, though, it is because we are sympathetic to his inexperience. Many of the things Hope endures in her first day with the Chances illicit gasps, but Jimmy’s love for his daughter is always apparent, and that helps us root for Jimmy and Hope.