There’s been so much variety of good comedy TV in the past few years that it’s dumb to pick a sub-genre. Smart and edgy shows like Silicon Valley are great. Shows that mine comedy from the absurdity of existence like Atlanta are great. Sitcoms that unabashedly pack as much humor, jokes, sight gags, silly situations, funny characters, funny references, and cutaways as possible into 22 minutes are great, too. Like Raising Hope.
You might assume that this is a cute kid sitcom, like Full House, mixed with a blue-collar sitcom, like Raising Hope. True, the show does feature an adorable baby, and the adults clean houses and mow lawns to barely make ends meet, but the show is much more than that. It’s really a show about parenting, not kids. And parenting is an absurd prospect.
From the beginning, Raising Hope (which ran on Fox from 2010 to 2014) presents the notion of having children as something that is accidental, strange, and somehow both not hard and very hard. Both of the show’s trajectories serve that end. One concerns Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), a sweet if dumb and directionless guy in his 20s who has a one-night stand with a woman who turns out to be a serial killer, and he finds out they had a baby together when he gets custody at the mother’s execution. He has to balance trying to suddenly be a good dad and act like an adult while also trying to have a social life, all while virtually broke and with little to no life skills.
That lack of preparation comes from Jimmy’s equally ill-equipped parents, Virginia (Martha Plimpton) and Burt (Garret Dillahunt). They had Jimmy while they were still in high school and have never really had a chance to get a leg up. Like Jimmy, they’re trying to be better people, a journey that’s explained with flashback scenes of all the questionable parenting decisions they made with Jimmy, most of them just to shield him from the world that’s been hard on them. What they do have is love, in ways both corny and overtly sexual. Burt and Virginia are still refreshingly very into each other, as evidenced by the profane running gag of Burt wearing an “I’d Rather Be in Virginia” t-shirt.
Again, Greg Garcia (he also created My Name Is Earl, which shares a “universe” with Raising Hope) and his writing staff throw a lot in, and much of it borders on the surreal and weird. And yet, all of it is earned and makes sense, flowing organically in and out of characters and situations. A lesser show would be fine with having the grandma character walk around in her underwear; on Raising Hope, Cloris Leachman’s “Maw Maw” does it because she has dementia, and dealing with that is a part of life for these characters. Jimmy’s girlfriend and later wife Sabrina (Shannon Woodward) has some control issues, and she sleeps with pantyhose on her head because she’s afraid of spiders crawling on her. Totally legit, per show logic.
In between the character comedy, the intricate set-ups for plot comedy, and the punchlines come other small delights. I actually love it when shows reference stars’ previous work. It’s just irresistible for writers, especially since they know the audience will probably love it, to have Plimpton of The Goonies make a Goonies reference, or have Dillahunt jump out of a coma and deliver one of his most ominous lines from Deadwood. It’s as if this is a comedy, and we’re supposed to be delighted and entertained or something.
Raising Hope is available on Netflix.
Brian Boone edits the Splitsider Humor Section.