Before Raising Hope, Greg Garcia was the credited creator or co-creator on two series that had multi-season runs. Yes, Dear was a CBS family sitcom that was painfully conventional. Accordingly, it was a clear commercial success, running six seasons and logging over one hundred and twenty episodes. Garcia followed that with a sole creator credit on My Name is Earl, a high concept comedy on NBC that happily careened into bright outlandishness. That show ended after its fourth season, to Garcia’s irritation, at least in part because, he claims, the network gave him assurances a renewal was pending when he expressed reservations about finishing the last episode of the production year with a cliffhanger.
As a follow-up to Earl, Garcia delivered the Fox comedy Raising Hope, which, intentionally or not, combined the spirits of its two immediate predecessors. It’s a family sitcom, but with an anarchic spirit. It pushed toward moments of sentiment and emphasized the loving bonds in relationships that presented as dysfunctional, but it did so with a cartoon boisterousness and penchant for cleverly bawdy jokes.
The founding premise centered on Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), an earnest, lower middle class fellow in his early twenties who has a one night stand with an assertive, wild woman (Bijou Phillips) who turns out to be a serial killer. When the tryst results in a offspring named Hope (played by interchanging twins Baylie and Rylie Cregut), Jimmy commits to fatherhood as the other parent is carted off to death row. With little money and not much better prospects, he moves in with his own parents, Virginia and Burt Chance (Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt, respectively) in a tiny house that much also make room for Virginia’s grandmother, known as Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman, in her eighties during the run of the series). Jimmy gets a job at a local grocery store, where he quickly becomes smitten with his coworker Sabrina Collins (Shannon Woodward).
In the beginning, the comedic balance on Raising Hope was imperfect. Then as now, there weren’t very many families on broadcast network TV that resides in the same under-rewarded economic strata at the Chases, and Garcia and his cohorts occasionally let strains of mockery infect their depiction of the family and their wobbly social circles. As the series progressed and creative voices became clearer and more assured, the sympathy for the characters solidified. Burt’s sweet dimness and Virginia’s propensity for malaprops remained fodder for jokes — often very funny jokes, it must be noted — but the characters were also afforded a consistent dignity. They were aware of their depressed lot in life, acknowledging their foibles, but with a sharp awareness of how the system was rigged against them. They understood the challenges of their own context.
As the tone of the show’s internal commentary grew more clear, the creative team took greater liberties with the storytelling. Perhaps emboldened by a sense that Fox executives’ rampant fickleness was starting to turn against Raising Hope, a freewheeling sense of play came to the forefront on the third season. The plots grew a little loopier, as with an early-season two-parter that found the clan trying to retrieve Maw Maw after a social worker (Jenny Slate) disturbed with the quality of care removed the elderly woman from the home. While remaining true to the fundamentals of the characters, fanciful and elaborate schemes were mounted, and it all somehow accentuated the eventual acknowledgement of the value of their togetherness.
Better yet, the show evolved rather than prolonged one of its most familiar elements, the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship between Jimmy and Sabrina that has been a sitcom staple since Diane Chambers first crossed the threshold of Cheers. The two became a couple in the middle of the second season, and the episodes that soon followed trafficked in orchestrated conflict to stir uncertainty. That approach was largely jettisoned in the third season, and the writers and performers instead examined how the couple grew together, edging to a wedding that was refreshingly treated as a normal outcome rather than a momentous dramatic event.
In an especially satisfying choice, the wedding episode employed a conceit that allowed it to be presented in the rough style of an episode of Modern Family, then in its fourth season and making its sharp exit into the pure tedium of characters behaving abominably to each other in advance of delivering a curdled antidote of episode-closing sentiment. Raising Hope trailed Modern Family significantly in the ratings, but the wedding episode — perhaps meant to be nothing more than a friendly homage — served as a compelling rebuttal to the ostentatious wealth and manufactured tender feelings. Far humbler in every respect, Raising Hope came by its affection and warmth honestly.
The wedding episode was also emblematic of a winning meta mischievousness that enlivened Raising Hope in the third season. Generally, this quality manifested around the edges. One-time Goonie Plimpton’s Virginia comments on the sad downward trajectory child performers often experience from Spielberg-backed theatrical blockbusters to “the nutty mom on some sitcom.” Burt responds to the presence of cameras filming pre-wedding activities by speculating they’ve been existing in their own version of The Truman Show, which would explain the procession of “crazy things” they experience. The self-referential storytelling reaches its dizzy pinnacle in an episode built around Hope’s birthday party that’s a thinly disguised excuse for Garcia to stage a reunion of the entire principal cast of My Name is Earl. The showrunner, enjoyably, was doing whatever the hell he wanted.
Although Raising Hope spent the third season shooting off narrative fireworks like it was in a state of perpetual grand finale. Fox unexpectedly renewed the show, but Garcia moved on, as if the madcap sprint of the season meant he romped through every idea worth having and expressing. In the fourth and final season, Raising Hope was a muddled echo, maintaining a certain antic quality without any of the inner being that made it special. Season three had already proved Raising Hope could be more than a headlong joke machine. It could be crafty and complex, and a sharp winner in the process.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One
—How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
—Firefly, Season One