Review by Kara Gheldof

When the announcement for Fox’s fall lineup came out one year ago, the sitcom Raising Hope sounded like a bomb waiting to go off, quietly ticking away the seconds until cancellation before it even began. From the mind of Greg Garcia, the creator of the somewhat successful cult hit, My Name Is Earl, Hope is the story of Jimmy Chance, an aimless twenty-something guy who accidentally knocks up a psycho in a one night stand, then decides to raise the infant—with the help of his quirky family—when the prison-bound mother is executed. The punch line? Jimmy and his family are a clan of inept morons who probably shouldn’t be allowed near children. Hilariously, the show was originally called Keep Hope Alive, much more acerbic, darkly comedic title that would have been perfect if not for the Fox network’s ill-advised meddling.

Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of hope for Hope when the up fronts emerged; either it was going to fail terribly right out of the door, or it was going to be a shining example of modern black comedy, largely ignored, and cancelled after three episodes. In reality, Raising Hope falls somewhere in the middle, and has been surprising everyone with consistent, dare I say, decent ratings. All this would mean nothing if Hope were an awful follow-up to Garcia’s last hit, Earl, but it is every bit deserving of its praise because—and here’s another shocker—it’s actually sort of sweet and endearing.

The comparisons to My Name Is Earl are appropriate; both shows feature a main cast of characters who are not the smartest people around, not the most angelic or ambitious, but they are extremely well-meaning and what they lack in material wealth and intelligence, they make up for in moral fiber. In Earl, a series of bizarre events led an ex-con to change his path in life and make up for all the bad things he’d done. In Hope, Jimmy’s one night stand with the crazy killer that led to Hope’s conception was a rare occurrence for the underachieving oaf. Most times he is sweet and honorable, and even though he had an opportunity to give up Hope, he decided to keep her with the intention of becoming a better person for his child.

And he’s succeeding for the most part. This is in no small part due to the help he gets from his wacky family—impishly immature father, Burt (played by Garret Dillahunt), who mostly just wants to be loved by his family, and sarcastic, headstrong mother, Virginia. Virginia is played by former “Goonie” Martha Plimpton, and if at this point you are wondering exactly what a Goonie is doing playing grandma and whether this means you are getting up there in years, then relax. Virginia and Burt had a unique child-rearing experience themselves, being only 15 when Jimmy was born. The young parents are often more like friends to Jimmy, but despite their initial hesitance at bringing Hope into the family (and seeing Jimmy repeat their mistakes), they are essential parts of the baby’s upbringing. Jimmy could never do it without them.

Aside from the theme of not-so-smart people making life-changing decisions to better themselves, Hope and Earl share a lot of actors. Many of the faces on Raising Hope will be familiar to you if you were a My Name is Earl fan, including Earl’s gay buddy Kenny as Jimmy’s grocery store manager, Darnell as the Chances’ mailman, and even Jason Lee himself in a guest spot. And that’s just to name a few. No doubt more of Earl’s list item subjects will show up in future episodes. Greg Garcia clearly has a roster of favorite actors he likes to direct, and he does so with the same simple charm and sly humor that he’s used for years.

Everything about this show was set up to fail. The actors are mostly unknown. Newcomer Lucas Neff plays Jimmy like a pro, however, as does his female costar Shannon Marie Woodward, playing Jimmy’s love interest, Sabrina, a seemingly normal girl charmed by the Chance family. It’s a very abnormal sitcom, no laugh track, normal-looking people, clever jokes. There are no nagging hot wives inexplicably married to fat men, there is no one character that is funnier than the rest, they are all funny and capably in command of their characters. Burt’s frat-boy-esque character could have been a one-off joke that got old very quickly but then the show surprised us by revealing a sensitive, emotionally needy side of Burt, the side that devises evil schemes designed to make son Jimmy cry… all so Burt can sneak a sincere hug out of his boy. Virginia’s neurosis is exposed on family photo day, when it is revealed that she tries so hard to make her eccentric clan seem normal on camera, only to fail every year. Sabrina, as it turns out, is a germ freak with secrets of her own. Every week little flashes into these unique people are revealed, like layers being peeled away one by one.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all though is Raising Hope’s unbelievable success. In a world where it seems like all the best shows trip over the starting line, Hope has already been renewed for a second season, and I for one will be thrilled to see this little girl stumble into adolescence… and teach the adults around her a thing or two about growing up.

© Kara Gheldof, 2011