[4 October 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Raising Hope was one of the biggest surprises of 2010. On the surface it seemed liked standard family sitcom fare, and the fact that it was centered around a baby—the titular Hope—didn’t exactly give it “big hit” buzz. However, the stellar cast and crew took what could have been the average sitcom and turned it into a sweetly satisfying and consistently funny hit.
Raising Hope: The Complete First Season introduces Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), a hapless 23 year old guy still living with his parents, Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and Virginia (Martha Plimpton), who in turn still live with Virginia’s Maw-maw (Cloris Leachman). Burt has a small landscaping and pool cleaning business, where Jimmy and his cousin (who lives in a tent in the family’s laundry room) are employed. Virginia works as a maid.
They are a typical, if quirky, working class family, and although they have dreams, they are perfectly aware of their place in life. None of them has any delusions about who they are. Well, except Maw-maw, but she’s senile, so that doesn’t count.
One of the brilliant things creator Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl) was able to do with Raising Hope right from the start is to convey the warmth and love in this family. Sure, the fact that Virginia had Jimmy when she was only 15 is often played for laughs, and Burt’s obviously not the smartest or most mature guy in town, but all these year later not only are these two still together, it’s clear that they are still in love. Jimmy might not have the best role models when it comes to certain things in life, but he’s got a family who loves him and cares about each other. This is what makes the audience care despite all of the dumb things these people do.
Which brings us to Hope. Seven months after having an unexpected one night stand with Lucy (Bijou Philips), who turned out to be a serial killer and is on death row, Jimmy discovers that he is the father of Lucy’s daughter. When “Princess Beyonce”, as Hope is initially called, is six months old, Lucy is executed and Jimmy gets custody. Despite being completely unprepared, he decides fatherhood just might be his purpose in life. Burt and Virginia are initially against it, but by the end of the first episode everyone is on board supporting Jimmy and Hope.
From that point on, episodes are devoted to exploring the characters, their relationships and their idiosyncrasies, and that’s where the real fun begins. Because, the show may be called Raising Hope, but it’s really about the cast of crazies who come together to care for her. Plimpton’s Virginia is a powerhouse of perfect timing, priceless delivery and deadpan reactions, she’s reason enough to watch all on her own.
However, everyone else excels at their own brands of humor, too. Dillahunt’s facial expressions and earnestness make Burt’s bumbling enthusiasm all the more endearing. Leachman, of course, is a comic goldmine. Maw-maw’s absurd one-liners, slapstick routines and visual gags provide many of the shows loudest laughs. Through several well-placed flashbacks, we get to see Leachman play Maw-maw when her lucid moments lasted longer than her loony ones.
We also meet teenage Burt and Virginia (Cameron Moulene and Kelly Heyer), which gives insight into many of the odd things that have happened in the Chance home, as well as demonstrating that no one has really grown up that much. In fact, that might be the over-arching message of Hope: Nobody ever really grows up and it doesn’t matter what age we are, we all need help (and humor) raising each other.
In that spirit, and in addition to the Chances, Hope has an extended family looking out for her too. Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), the girl Jimmy’s in love with, is a clerk at the grocery store and, as an outsider, gives Jimmy a counterpoint to some of the crazier things in his life. There’s Shelly (Kate Migucci, in a lovably kooky performance), who runs Hope’s day care, where she accepts infants, dogs and senior citizens. Barney (Greg Binkley) manages the grocery store where Jimmy eventually ends up working, and he’s quick to dispense absurd advice whether it’s requested or not.
As Jimmy, Neff is often the straight man the others play off of, but he also gets his moments. He’s the heart of the show, and he’s learning as he goes, so a lot of his humor comes from misunderstandings or a lack of education, but it’s never mean-spirited. You pull for Jimmy as he tries to become a good dad and a better person through trial and error. Mostly error (he doesn’t know you have to strap the car seat to the car, he crawls into Hope’s crib trying to get her to sleep, he takes her to work with him, etc.).
In Raising Hope you get the feeling, as with My Name Is Earl, that the errors of life are where Greg Garcia’s humor is at its best. These 22 episodes demonstrate that, while making mistakes is funny, sometimes the lessons we learn are even funnier. Especially if we are lucky enough to have a family making mistakes, learning lessons, and laughing with—or at—us, too.
Raising Hope:The Complete First Season bonus features include the unaired network pilot, the extended cut of the season finalé with an alternate ending, commentary on the pilot episode, deleted and extended scenes, a gag reel, and three featurettes: “Adorable Stars: Meet the Hopes”, “Moments with Mrs. Chance” and “Taking Chances: Shooting the Season Finalé”.