Reviews

'Raising Hope': I Want People to Look at Me Differently

Virginia, played by the incomparable Martha Plimpton, can be downright poignant. She works as a maid, a job that hasn't exactly sweetened her on life.

Raising Hope

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Lucas Neff, Martha Plimpton, Garret Dillahunt, Shannon Woodward, Cloris Leachman
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Fox
Director: Michael Fresco
Air date: 2010-09-21
Website
Trailer
Amazon

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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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