Giving Fox, and Raising Hope, a Fair Chance

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It’s easy to blame Fox for not giving our favorite shows a fair enough shot, by moving them around on the schedule or not increasing the public’s awareness due to a lack of advertising. I’m still bitter about Lone Star, and that only ran for two episodes!

But to their credit, look at the number of quality sitcoms they’ve at least given a shot to: Action!, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Arrested Development, The Ben Stiller Show, Greg the Bunny, Grounded for Life, Herman’s Head, In Living Color, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Malcolm in the Middle, Married…with Children, Oliver Beene, Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Running Wilde, That ‘70s Show, The Tick, and Undeclared. There are some amazing comedies in there, and even the just-good ones (like, That ‘70s Show) were better than most things on, say, CBS.

(That’s not to mention all the other great, non-sitcom Fox shows has aired, including Animaniacs, Dollhouse, Batman: The Animated Series, Firefly, Wonderfalls, The X-Files…you get the point.)

Even their current schedule is made up of shows other major networks would have probably rejected, most notably The Simpsons, but also Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, Glee, and a show that I’ve heard nothing but good things about and finally got around to watching last night, Raising Hope.

Created by Greg Garcia, the man who also brought us My Name is Earl, which really seems like it should have been on Fox, not NBC, freshman comedy Raising Hope is about Jimmy, a 23-year-old man (Lucas Neff) having to raise a baby, Hope, by himself after the one-night-stand mother is given the death sentence when Hope’s only six months old. Believe me, it’s much funnier than it sounds.

Jimmy still lives with his parents, Virginia and Burt (played by Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt), and grandmother, Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), and the family doesn’t have much money. They’re not poor, per say, but they’re not loaded, either. They live the same way Malcolm and his family did: living paycheck to paycheck, which can be an effective storytelling device, and it works really well in Raising Hope because the writers aren’t making fun of the characters.

One of my problems with My Name is Earl is too often it felt like the characters were being made fun of for being, should we say, low class, too often reduced to simple stereotypes. That’s not a problem on Hope, where during last night’s episode, “Snip Snip,” pull-my-finger and vasectomy jokes actually serve a touching point about fathers and sons not drifting apart. The cast, especially Plimpton and Dillahunt, are totally game and play daft very well. Plimpton, in particular, might become an Emmy-mainstay.

Leachman as the lucid Maw Maw is used sparingly, like a really effective pinch hitter: when you need someone to hit a line out of the park, so to speak, Leachman steps to the plate and doesn’t disappoint (apologies for the baseball metaphor). She snaps in and out of insanity, giving advice to the rest of the family (last night it was because she wanted either her granddaughter or grandson-in-law to get fixed or spayed). Jimmy, on the other hand, might become a bit of a problem for the show. Neff is a good comedic actor and very likable, but he doesn’t really seem to do anything other than react to the crazy antics of others and occasionally talk to his daughter. Before watching Raising Hope, I would have thought he’d be used the same way Earl was on My Name, with the entire show revolving around him, but he’s the straight man and on-screen way less than his parents. It’s not a big deal yet, and “Snip Snip” didn’t have a scene with the girl he likes, Sabrina, so the writers deserve the benefit of the doubt that they’ll figure out something to do with him.

The show has a breezy pace, helped by the lack of a laugh track and that doesn’t wait for you to understand the jokes. There are even hints at reoccurring oddball characters, like Tyler the Gas Man, who’s also Tyler the Arcade Man (think Kirk from Gilmore Girls), played by Darnell “Crab Man” Turner from Earl. Once a show starts expanding its main cast, that’s usually a sign that it’s beginning to finds its comfort zone, and after 15 episodes, I think Hope is there.

Raising Hope is just the latest in Fox’s tradition of running wonderfully weird shows, and definitely worth watching. It’s not on the same level of greatness as Arrested Development or The Tick — it’s more in the Malcolm and Andy Richter range — but it’s an odd, charming, and funny enough show that it’s worth 22 minutes a week. It’s also got a very comfortable timeslot right now (Tuesday at 9 p.m., right after American Idol). Although there are a lot of things that seem off about the show (specifically, it’s about a baby, never a good thing for a sitcom), it doesn’t fall into any easy traps and I set up my DVR to season pass it after watching “Snip Snip.” And if it does get cancelled after its second season (Fox said yes to the show’s sophomore in January), like so many other underwatched quality shows on the network, we only have ourselves to blame. Which is really my standing-on-a-soapbox way of saying: don’t make the same mistake I did, watch Raising Hope.

Josh Kurp really wishes he could have covered Two and a Half Men in this column.