Raising Hope (Fox, Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET), a sitcom about single fatherhood, passes for a rookie hit this fall, a distinction attributable to this fall’s absence of genuine rookie hits. Hawaii Five-O has surfed, smirked, and semiautomatically shot its way to the head of this mediocre class, and the fat jokes of Mike & Molly are causing several million American paunches to jiggle with mirth every Monday night. Responding to the Nielsen numbers put up by the rest of the new shows, the average industry analyst musters an occasional “not bad” and mutters many an “eh.” In this context, Raising Hope rates an amiable “OK,” I think, though that’s not my area of expertise. I’m just here to suggest grading the show’s entertainment value on the same generous curve.
Your hero is Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), still a boy in his early twenties, cutely awkward and awkwardly earnest. Seeing Jimmy wear a mop of indie-rock bangs and an R. Crumb T-shirt, we interpret his presentation as a polite refusal of his family heritage. All indications are that the lad has been brought up to sport a mullet on his head and Skynyrd merch on his back. Jimmy lives at home with the parents who had him when they were 15—a father who runs a little lawn-and-pool-care company and a mother who works for a maid service. A blue collar is not to be confused with a red neck, but Raising Hope is the invention of Greg Garcia, who created My Name Is Earl and continues to mine a tacky lower-middle stratum of American society for every broad joke and stray gem it has to offer. He and Fox—the go-to network for off-color domestic sitcoms ever since Al Bundy first warmed its toilet seat—seem happily matched in their fascination with bad taste.
Jimmy’s dad (Garret Dillahunt) plays lotto and eats turtle. His mother (future Emmy nominee Martha Plimpton) delivers sub-malapropisms (“philostrophical,” “hermeditary”) with a perennial cigarette sloping from her uncouth lip. It looks like his grandmother (Cloris Leachman) smokes the same brand—Merit Ultralight 100s, I’m guessing—and that inhaling is one of the few skills that this lady has retained in her lively senility. A doofus cousin comes and goes, talking slapstick nonsense, bro. This is, of course, an ideal environment in which to raise a baby.
Early in the first episode, returning from an errand to pick up a quart of ice cream in a lower-caste flavor (bubblegum), Jimmy picked up an attractive young woman on the street and brought her home. His van began a-rockin’. She stayed for breakfast, and Jimmy discovered the morning light shining unflatteringly upon his bedmate. She was wanted for murder, said a TV news anchor. She was sentenced to the electric chair—a penalty exacted a mere few months after she presented Jimmy with their love child. She dubbed the baby girl Princess Beyoncé, which, though unsophisticated, is at least better than Madison. Refer to the series’ limp title to see what Jimmy renames her.
At the execution, Jimmy sat front-row center. His first task as his daughter’s custodian was to shield her big bright eyes with a tremulous hand as her mother fried. That was a fun joke and a fine example of the audacity that the show could use more of. When Raising Hope nails its timing in pushing genre tropes to the edge of good taste—as when Hope, strapped into an uninstalled carseat, goes bobbling around a moving vehicles—it rates laughs. When the bumbling-daddy jokes prove merely middling, the show drops into the safety net of the baby’s cuteness, a technique that’s faintly shameful but rather effective. And when the writers falter, they altogether flail. In the second episode, Jimmy’s love interest, a grocery-store cashier, blows a thick layer of dust off the copy of Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo he is attempting to rent. Somehow, this gag feels as if it antedates Mr. Bigalow himself.
You know what to expect from a show like Raising Hope: Lessons will be learned, diapers will be gross, the subject of breast-feeding will be milked for all its worth. But you can’t have expected anything quite like the spectacular sass oozed by Plimpton as Virginia Chance. “Jimmy, smoke rises,” she reasons with her son when he broaches the topic of tobacco around children. “She’s not gonna be tall enough to breathe it for a long time.” Coming on like one of Amy Poehler’s insolent gum-snappers, her Virginia Chance is a former teen mom with a bitter kernel to her brazenness, a farcical vision of the grandma as princess.