Before confronting Greg Garcia’s (“My Name is Earl”) new Fox family sitcom, “Raising Hope,” — a show that most critics, so far, have been fairly divided on — I think it’s illustrative here to offer some background on my own perspective, so perhaps you’ll better understand why I liked the pilot episode as much as I did. Here’s a picture, the only one I seem to have of my teenage years (the rest were lost after my father failed to pay the monthly fees on a storage unit, but he had a fairly good excuse: He was fucking dead).
That’s me (in the yellow, pre-braces, big fucking glasses) at around the age of 17; my father (with the Bluto T-shirt, probably high at the time); my younger sister (not too long before she became pregnant); Jeremy Fox (who used to write here, and this may have been after his father kicked him out of the house after he discovered that Jeremy was gay), and Willard Scott, from a banner stolen from a Burger King. That’s my bedroom in the background. Not pictured is my younger brother, who was probably 14 at the time, and likely out somewhere strung out on meth.
From the image, you might better understand why “Raising Hope” is the first family sitcom dysfunctional enough that I can actually relate with to some degree. There’s a scene, in fact, where a toddler is bouncing around in the backseat (without a car seat) of a moving car and shoving his head into a hole in the floor of the automobile that gave me a powerful, exhilarating wave of nostalgia, as I remembered a similar hole in our floorboard that I would drop pennies into while the car was hurtling down the freeway. I was probably five years old.
“Raising Hope” is darkly funny in a way that a network sitcom has never dared to be. In the pilot episode’s first act, Jimmy Chance — a layabout 25-year-old with no future prospects who lives at home — goes out to get his family some bubble-gum ice cream. On his way home from the store, a woman fleeing a crazed man jumps in his van. Jimmy and this woman have sex. The next morning, Jimmy discovers that the woman killed her last two boyfriends. Jimmy’s Mom (Martha Plimpton) knocks the girl out with a television set. Nine months later, we discover that the girl is pregnant; she has the baby in prison, and then the infant and Jimmy watch the girl’s execution by electric chair, leaving the baby — initially named Princess Beyonce, later changed to Hope — in the care of Jimmy and his fucked-up, dysfunctional family.
And oh, what a family it is, people. Martha Plimpton plays the cigarette smoking mother, Virginia, who at one point delivered a line that I know like the back of my hand: “I smoked in front of your all your life, and you turned out just fine.” She’s a maid, in no hurry to get to her job every morning. Garret Dillahunt, in a role like you’ve never seen him, is the dumb-ass father (he reminds me, in “Raising Hope,” of Ethan Suplee’s character in “Earl”). He has a landscaping business. He’s not very good at it. Chloris Leachman plays the Maw Maw (hey! I called mine, “Mee Maw,” and she was a grandmother in her 30s), who is senile, walks around the house naked, and mistakes Jimmy (Lucas Neff) for her late husband, which means that she occasionally makes out with Jimmy in a fit of dementia. Shannon Woodward (who may be familiar to you from “The Riches,”) plays Jimmy’s potential love interest, a wise-acre grocery store cashier who likes to fuck with the produce.
And when a baby seat — not strapped in to the car — rolls around the backseat with the baby inside, I laughed more than I have at any sitcom in a very long time.
“Raising Hope,” needless to say, is not for everyone. After all, at one point, Jimmy throws up on the baby. And then his mother throws up on the baby. But hell if this insane fucking sitcom with the insane fucking white trash family is not grounded a little in reality. It’s got heart, too. Some of that fantastic whiplash pathos of which I’m such a fan. I mean: I love “Modern Family,” as much as the next guy, but as family sitcoms go, “Raising Hope,” is the one with which my childhood socioeconomic class best identifies.