(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Raising Hope isn’t in the upper echelon of contemporary TV comedy, but it’s close. Over the course of its first season, the series has worked out a lot of the kinks and flaws that made it look like an also-ran in its early going. That’s especially true of aspects that aren’t directly related to ostensible lead Lucas Neff: Skyler Stone’s obnoxious cousin character disappeared (but for a recent one-off appearance) after the pilot; Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton have emerged as the strongest comedic players in the cast; showrunner Greg Garcia and his writing staff have even learned to create material for Cloris Leachman’s Maw Maw that doesn’t involve going back to the old “Cloris Leachman is a bawdy old broad” well every week. It’s a good show on the rise, made all the more remarkable by the fact that Fox didn’t try to smother the thing in the crib. (Was that in bad taste? It’s kind of in-character for the show… )
Neff’s Jimmy, however, is a work in progress. In a bit of meta-scripting, that’s been a recurring theme throughout the series, and it’s revisited in “Sleep Training.” Along with the rise of Michael Cera/Jesse Eisenberg and Zack Snyder’s choice to cast a Brit as Superman, Jimmy Chance might someday serve as a shining media portrayal of the ineffectual, emasculated American male circa 2011. (Of course, I’m not one to point fingers: My grandfathers fought fires and repaired powerlines to put food on the table; I recently expounded for thousands of words about a sitcom that only lasted one season.) There’s probably something in that about how this whole generation of men has lost the beat on the true, non-toxic sources of masculine strength and pride—one of which Burt uncovers late in the episode—which armchair psychologists and Fox sitcoms trace back to over-coddling and over-parenting. As Burt and Virginia, enlightened by the back cover of a book on infant sleep-training, are quick to point out, Jimmy’s always been within one “Help!'s”-reach of parental assistance, which is part of the reason he’s still haunted by the smiling, toothy visage of his greatest childhood fear: A man with a dog’s head. “Exactly,” say thousands of guys, ages 20-35, forever traumatized by Pennywise The Clown, Chucky, and particularly eerie production company logos. Still, the fact that someone who wears as many Robert Crumb T-shirts as Jimmy can have his world rocked by hallucinogenic tea is a sign that the writers remain unsure of how to use the character. Perhaps they simply need to confront their fears, as Jimmy finally does in the closing moments of “Sleep Training.”
Appropriately, there’s a whole Fight Club subplot running throughout the A-story, which winks in sub-Palahniukian terms toward Jimmy’s strides toward manhood. Just like Fight Club’s unnamed protagonist, Jimmy seems bound to end up with self-destructive, possibly psychotic women: First, it was Hope’s mother, the convicted serial killer; now, it turns out new flame Zoe runs with a rough crowd and has very low boundaries when it comes to public nudity. Unfortunately, “Sleep Training” doesn’t end with a battered Jimmy holding hands with Zoe as the two watch the Pixies-scored destruction of the grocery store—which would only make this a weirder episode to drop in on. I’m generally big on the cartoonish aspects of Raising Hope (I can’t be the only one: The fact that it shares a kinetic, exaggerated sensibility with the series of Fox’s undying animation bloc must have something to do with the show’s continued life), but Jimmy’s Fear And Loathing In The Suburbs experience struck me as a bit too similar to a health-class anti-drug movie. (Dutch angles! Wavering visuals! Talking product labels!)
This time around, I garnered much more pleasure from the Burt and Virginia storyline. Like my esteemed colleague Meredith Blake, I find the development of those two characters to be the most consistently entertaining aspect of Raising Hope’s self-discovery. Dillahunt and Plimpton succeed with measly crumbs of a plot here: After their umpteenth “We screwed Jimmy up; we can’t do the same to Hope” epiphany (aided by the welcome return of Tichina Arnold and Phill Lewis), Burt buys a book on weaning Hope from parental comfort. But it’s Burt who’s left in tears once they succeed in getting the baby to quiet down, and the closest thing the series has to a bastion of masculinity hilariously bawls his way through his victory speech. It’s over-the-top, but it comes from some deeper emotional territory—Burt just wanted an achievement that could stack up to the time Virginia knocked Hope’s mom out with a television—so it gets my vote as the highlight of the episode.
Of course, that’s not what brings a lot of viewers to Raising Hope—this is still a show that puts a character named DJ Mr. Singh in his tighty whities and dares us to laugh. Garcia and crew know where their bread is buttered, so while their series continues to grow and face some of its own, emotion-based fears, we’ll still see plenty of scenes of Jimmy being embarrassed in front of Rosa, along with further minor defeats for Burt, like the stymied attempt to erase his way to line-drawn nipples in “Sleep Training.” And I’ll probably keep watching, too, because as tonight’s episode proved, not crying babies nor dog-headed men are any match for raw, human perseverance. Hopefully, the spoils of Raising Hope’s development are as satisfying as those enjoyed by Jimmy, Burt, and Virginia in this episode.
- We saw almost nothing of Sabrina this week, which robs me of the chance to weigh in on that character and how desperately the show wants her to be some smartass nu-Juno. The series is wasting the sweet, spunky Shannon Woodward to her own innate, sweet spunkiness—though last week’s episode showed there’s a soul underneath that sarcasm.
- Grade aside—this was far from the best episode of the season—there were still a lot of small, gratifying gags in “Sleep Training.” Case in point: The callback to Virginia’s nose-stroking stress reliever which served to strengthen the parallels between Burt and Virginia and Donovan and Sylvia.
- “It’s blowing everybody’s mind you bought a book.”
- “You look so freaked out—like a deer caught in his girlfriend’s highbeams.”
- “I’d hate to keep you from tasting manhood.”
- “You shut up Norman—we had to put up with your crying when your wife finally left you.”
- “Well, I guess the Hard Rock Café is still the craziest restaurant I’ve ever seen.”
- “Oh man, you are totally tea-faced”
- “One time, it made me think I was a great white shark for an entire day—I bit four people”
- “Once I got to know her, she was too much of a crazy, inconsiderate, possibly drug-addicted tramp. But she was a great girl.”