Raising Hope debuts tonight on Fox at 9 p.m. Eastern.
One of the great debates in American film in the last quarter century is whether the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson despise or like their characters. In Fargo, are the accents and other over-the-top elements there as a way to hold the Minnesotans in smug contempt, or are they a way for the Coens to gently poke fun at the kinds of people they grew up with? Is the Tenenbaum family full of people we should feel bigger than because they're emotionally stunted adult children, or is Anderson in a wistful, melancholy mood about the perils of lost promise? Watch all of both films, and it's easy to build a strong case for the latter argument in both cases. Fargo's Marge Gunderson is the most pure and good-hearted character in the Coens' filmography (and her husband is a pretty nice guy, too). The Tenenbaums shrug off just enough of their emotional stuntedness to live real lives again. These directors may waltz right up to the edge of smug contempt, but somewhere, deep inside of them, they really like the people in their movies and want to spend time with them.
Then there's Jared Hess. Hess was the director of the 2004 surprise smash Napoleon Dynamite, one of the few films to bring a visual look similar to stuff the Coens and Anderson had been doing to the mainstream (though the Coens' and Anderson's biggest hits were all bigger than Napoleon Dynamite). Napoleon Dynamite attempts a similar late-in-the-game rally, but it falls short. There's no doubt at any time that Hess sees nearly every single one of his characters as a walking punchline, an oddball that's simply there for the audience to laugh at. It's a way for everyone out in the theater who never got to sit at the cool kids table to find someone beneath them to point at. It's human tribalism at its very worst, a series of jokes that boils down entirely to, "Hey, lookit that weirdo."
And that's, ultimately, the reason why Greg Garcia's new series, Raising Hope, fails. It tries to make viewers like the characters on it but spends just as much time laughing at the gross, white trash idiots. Raising Hope has a likable cast (with one weak link). The jokes are expertly constructed, to be expected from veteran writer Garcia. The pilot is the best-directed comedy pilot of the year, with several shots that would work quite well on the big screen and have a certain cinematic quality to them. (Keep an eye out for a sequence where the main character pushes a shopping cart full of junk he's going to sell to the pawn shop and a shot of a young boy sticking his head out underneath a moving car from the inside.) Though the pilot has a hefty ghoulish streak running through it, it's well-structured, and it has a pretty good premise for a comedy: What happens when a guy with no direction finds out he's a dad (thanks to a series of ever-so-comical misunderstandings) and then has to raise his baby girl? There's enough good here that there are going to be people who simply love this show and add it to the regular rotation. But there's a central nastiness to the whole thing, a nastiness that's going to win the show just as many vituperative haters.
Garcia was the guy behind My Name Is Earl, a show that had two good seasons, a sporadically funny season, and an atrocious final season. At one time, Earl was to be the comedy that saved TV, the recipient of a big promotional boost and big ratings that led to a healthy and consistent audience that loved the show's central idea and cast. Earl flirted with that line of contempt like Raising Hope does, but until that last season, a certain sweetness in it kept reeling it back before it could wholly dive into nasty darkness. Garcia is intrigued by narratives of self-improvement, and every time Earl would get to be too much, all it would take was a quick monologue from Jason Lee or Ethan Suplee to right the ship. It wasn't the greatest show of its time, but Earl was supremely watchable comedic TV at its height, with a deftly thought-out comic universe brimming with characters the show had created over the years that it ran.
Raising Hope tries to do a lot of the same things. The self-improvement narrative is there. It's endlessly watchable (at least on a superficial level). There's always a sense that the world of the show is bigger than the things shown in the pilot, that there are intriguing comic characters hanging out just off to the edges of the frame. But there's also a real sense of hatred brimming within the show, a hatred that's directed at the characters at the show's center. Garcia tries to reel this back in again with a sweet late scene where Martha Plimpton (part of that sterling cast) sings, but any momentum he gains from that is undercut by yet another joke where Cloris Leachman's inappropriate grandma character acts inappropriately.
Though there are more laugh-worthy lines in Raising Hope than any other new comedy this fall (particularly from Shannon Woodward's Sabrina, a grocery store checkout clerk who might be something of a Garcia stand-in, given how much she seems to hate everyone else on the show), there's also a shocking reliance on lazy gags. The second a baby enters the picture, the show turns into an elaborate attempt to see how much the white trash morons can endanger a baby (as it turns out, they can do quite a good job of this). Leachman, a talented and terrific comic actress, is solely there to confuse the lead for her dead husband and walk around without a shirt on. The show brings in Garrett Dillahunt just to have him play an asshole. And so on.
In some ways, Raising Hope might work if it had a different actor at its center. Lucas Neff is such a dozey-eyed and non-essential presence here that every other actor steals the scenes they're in with him. In Earl, Garcia could stop the contempt from leaking in because Jason Lee was strong enough to hold the screen with a Jaime Pressly. Neff is nowhere near strong enough here, and he always seems to be coasting, letting many of the other actors carry the show. With a stronger lead in the role of Jimmy, the show might have made viewers believe that this kid was instantly smitten with the baby he was unexpectedly gifted with, justifying many of the lazier gags and the nastier elements with a nice emotional core. Instead, Neff just makes it seem like, hey, cool, he found a baby.
Ultimately, that's what makes Raising Hope such a frustrating show. There are good elements in every corner of the show, but the void at the center - both of the show's cast and the show's philosophy - keeps everything from working as well as it should. Given enough time, Raising Hope could turn into a better show, but it seems more likely that it will continue to follow the pattern set in the early minutes of the pilot. Jimmy unexpectedly meets a woman played by Bijou Phillips. She brings the pilot to sparkling, crackling life, and she's the first character Garcia seems to find more than just a white trash abomination. She sleeps with Jimmy, shows off her knowledge of global geopolitics, then is revealed to be a murderer and summarily written out of the series. In less than five minutes, Raising Hope asks if these characters deserve anything good and immediately answers no. And if that answer is no, what's to keep us here, other than a need to point and laugh?