The first thing I want to say about "Raising Hope" is that I laughed at the pilot. I definitely laughed more times at the "Raising Hope" pilot than at multiple "Running Wilde" episodes I've seen and possibly more times than I laughed at any other fall network comedy pilot.
So that's a good thing.
And it's an empirical thing. One laugh at a comedy is a fluke. I've heard from critics who swear they laughed at something in "Outsourced." I'm skeptical, but I've heard it said. But three or four laughs? There's harder to fake.
The second thing I want to say about "Raising Hope" is that I felt just a little bit guilty as I laughed at the pilot. I wondered if I was laughing at well-executed comedy courtesy of creator Greg Garcia and the show's excellent cast, or if I was laughing at the sort of baby endangerment humor and class-baiting hijinks which, with lesser execution and a lesser cast, I might instead find unseemly and possibly icky.
So that's not a good thing.
That leaves "Raising Hope" as yet another of those "Could Go Either Way" shows where, in a perfect world, I'd have been able to see two or three episodes before formulating a full opinion. This one has the potential to be FOX's best live-action comedy in a couple years (no, that isn't saying much), but it also has the potential to get ugly in a hurry.
Full review after the break... Perhaps a bit rushed through... It's a busy day...
"Raising Hope" focuses on newcomer Lucas Neff's Jimmy Chance, a somewhat simple young man who lives with his parents (Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt) and his cousin and his Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), cleans swimming pools and dreams of better things than his lower-than-blue-collar existence.
Salvation seemingly comes in the form of the very appealing Bijou Phillips, who enters Jimmy's life and seems to offer him an alternative, or unprotected sex at the very least. Of course, Jimmy's new love is a crazed murderer and she's off to death row before the credits roll, but not before leaving Jimmy with an adorable little baby in prison blues.
Jimmy's woefully unprepared to be a father. He doesn't know how to change diapers. He doesn't own a baby car seat. He doesn't know what to feed her. And his parents aren't much better off, since they had Jimmy when they were still reckless teens. And let's not even get started on Maw Maw, who experiences only occasional moments of lucidity amidst conversations with her dead husband and topless galavanting around the neighborhood.
But Jimmy sees the baby as his chance -- no, that name is not particularly subtle -- to prove his worth and change the course of his life and he's determined to exceed people's low expectations for him.
Is there something unseemly about a show that uses a cute child as a mechanism for misadventures and personal advancement? Yes. Yes there is. It's not like the show's various babies were ever in any jeopardy, but the intimation of jeopardy is omnipresent and the basis for much of the show's humor. So is "Raising Hope" a bit like condoned child abuse conducted in a sterile, safe petri dish environment? Perhaps a bit too much, though less-so than an abomination like "Baby's Day Out" and it's not like shows as excellent as "Modern Family" or "Friends" haven't stooped to the "Bumping The Baby's Head Is Hilarious and Yet Terrifying!" game.
A "Friends" or a "Modern Family" can get away with isolated jokes of that sort because they grounded the accidental abuse in a deep well of family love. "Raising Hope" wants to do the same thing and the shift from broad barf-poop-bawling humor to warm-and-fuzzy "We are a family" hugginess (cut with only a little strychnine) is abrupt, but also welcome.
In the best moments of "My Name Is Earl" (and there definitely were excellent moments of "My Name Is Earl"), Garcia worked similar ground with authority. If the audience has a sincere believe that the main characters are trying to be better, they'll accept a lot of bad behavior, especially when much of the child abuse was perpetrated by the parents in flashback.
Director Michael Fresco uses the show's single-camera trappings to make both tones play convincingly, even if the transitions between them are rough. As with "Earl," "Raising Hope" benefits from a production design that makes the characters look like they live in a world of cluttered eccentricity, rather than poverty.
The cast is great, but the performances can be erratic at times. While Dillahunt is flawless in going back and forth between comedy and drama, the talented Plimton is best in the sentimental side of the story. When Plimpton plays for comedy, she relies too heavily on props like a perpetually dangling cigarette and her character's needless tendency toward malapropisms. When Plimpton's dramatic, it's a real performance, when she's comedic, it's caricature. Leachman never departs that realm of caricature and although I'm sure her Crazy Inappropriate Granny character will be a favorite for some fans, I found her schtick predictable and banal.
For the pilot, at least, Neff's character is designed as a bit of a blank slate and he performs accordingly. There's enough wackiness on all sides that his lack of affect is appealing at times, but renders him too placid and forgettable at others. The early stages of a halting flirtation between Jimmy and Shannon Woodward's grocery clerk Sabrina is very sweet and produces many of the pilot's standout moments.
As was also the case with "My Name Is Earl," "Raising Hope" is going to rely on a difficult balancing act between coarse and potentially condescending humor and unironic sweetness and heart. Although I quit on "Earl" before it ended, I never ceased to be impressed with how frequently Garcia and company had the balance correct. But "Raising Hope" may have an even harder act, since so much of it revolves around babies and babies make for fragile and finicky props. "Raising Hope" also doesn't launch with quite the confidence that "Earl" had from its premiere on. Like "Mike & Molly," this is a comedy whose potential I see, while also acknowledging that some people are going to be turned off instantly.
"Raising Hope" premieres on Tuesday, September 21 at 9 p.m. on FOX.
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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.