For the past two weeks, I’ve been recovering from surgery. That has meant a lot of time getting other people to do household chores for me and watching a lot of TV. And when I just couldn’t watch “The Office” anymore (Who would have ever thought?), I turned to an old favorite: “Raising Hope,” which aired on Fox from 2010-2014. And even though I had seen every episode more times than I’m proud to admit, it was still funny to me. I had forgotten how much I missed it. I had forgotten how angry I was at Fox for taking it away over three years ago now.
When you think of a sitcom, you probably think of the same clichés as I do. Fat husband with a goofy personality. Kids with a knack for getting into just the right amount of juicy trouble, and somehow, it’s all forgotten by the next week. Laugh track, competition for jokes, and a hostile relationship among all the family members, particularly the husband and wife. It’s what we expect, but it’s essentially the opposite of what “Raising Hope” delivered. It sought to crush classically offensive sitcom tropes. The Season Two Christmas episode, “It’s a Hopeful Life,” and Season Four’s “Dinner with the Tropes,” actually went out of their way to defeat the stereotypes that typical “family” television has the bad habit of putting forth. Family sitcoms don’t have to be spiteful. Maybe they should, sometimes, be loving.
For those of you who missed it (and according to the show’s ratings, that’s quite a few of you), “Raising Hope” was a sitcom brought to you by Greg Garcia, the same guy who created “My Name Is Earl.” It focused on Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), a twenty-three-year-old man with little aspirations until he accidentally knocks up a serial killer and ends up with the baby, his daughter, Hope. Already quite the premise, isn’t it?
Most of the earliest episodes featured Jimmy as a frenzied new father who, every week, discovered a different way that his parents screwed him up. Some of the funnier plots include Jimmy’s one year as a musical prodigy, a year erased from his brain because when his father accidentally whacked him in the head with a mini golf club, he got amnesia. In another, Jimmy’s parents spent quite awhile at a local university spying on Jimmy’s girlfriend and tried to convince her to break up with him, and when Jimmy’s father posed as a man in a mask on Halloween just so Jimmy would run home and hug him for dear life. These plots are absolutely absurd. I think, for a show about a family, that they’re perfect.
When we snobs discuss sitcoms we enjoy, our favorite thing to say is, “The writing is smart!” This is perhaps the only way a lot of us know how to describe “Arrested Development” or “30 Rock.” However, the writing on “Raising Hope” doesn’t try to be smart. The focal Chances aren’t a family of well-educated people, so we won’t catch them making purposely satirical jokes about foreign politics or even the Kardashian family. In fact, the Chance family makes some pretty glaring factual errors, which can be hilarious in their own right.
For example, the true family matriarch, Virginia Chance (Martha Plimpton), mispronounces or invents a myriad of words in a dialect I like to call “Virginiaspeak.” She has tossed out words like “dramastically,” “procrasturbating,” and “peroxative.” She doesn’t know what a malapropos is despite making them all the time. These are all great jokes, and there’s no denying it. But we’re not even supposed to mock Virginia for her limited yet flavorful vocabulary. It’s played as endearing and believable. The point of Virginia isn’t to point at her and thank God you’re not her. The point of Virginia is to love her because she always does her best to be kind.
Still, the best part about the writing on “Raising Hope” is that the comedy gets physical. It’s not afraid to be gross. There is an episode of this show that is literally about pooping your pants. It sounds dumb. It sounds really, really dumb. It’s excellent. These are the things we laugh at in private but are afraid to admit we find amusing in public because God forbid our comedy isn’t all a pointed allegory about the political landscape (Although in 2017, I do agree that’s necessary.). There are gross gags, such as throwing up on baby Hope twice in the very first episode and an entire subplot in which Virginia and her husband, Burt, contemplate sifting through Virginia’s grandmother’s poo to find a gold tooth. You cringe and you shout, but it’s hard not to love it.
Why? Because in one way or another, we’ve all contemplated becoming a poo sifter. Some of us are just brave enough to admit it.
The characterization on this show is also especially strong. The Chances do not have the intellect that “30 Rock’s” Liz Lemon boasts, but it just doesn’t matter. As the story unfolds, we find out that none of them graduated from high school, and it just doesn’t matter. In spite of the fact there are the occasional jokes about how misinformed the Chances are, they’re never truly lampooned or ridiculed for their lack of education. If anything, their book-smart friends want to help them (See the Season Two episode “Mrs. Smartypants” for reference.).
What actually matters is that the Chance family is kind, and that’s why people love and admire them. They’re not so rich that they’re out of touch with reality like the Bluth family on “Arrested Development.” There are not obsessive and excessive dating plots like there are on “How I Met Your Mother.” On this series, love of all kinds was just a given, like the easy part of a problem in pre-algebra. In modern television, that’s incredibly rare, and I think it’s something we should strive to portray.
“Raising Hope” does not set out to make fun of anybody out of spite. As a matter of fact, racists were the only people that the show specifically set out to criticize. The Chances are characterized as embodiments of love and kindness, two subjects that will never require a diploma.
While I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the irreverent, witty sitcom, I’m certainly tired of the hostile formulas used by the family sitcom. “Raising Hope” never fell prey to those traps and tropes. The show actively subverted them instead. This show was excellent. It never wanted to be sophisticated, but it never wanted to be sloppy, either. But more than anything, this was a show about a family who loved each other no matter what they got up to. The Chance family never had to pretend that they liked each other. They just plain did.
And I think TV really needed them. I think it still does. “Raising Hope” is available on Netflix right now. Give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised.