The fact that I allowed seven episodes of Raising Hope to pile up on my DVR at the end of last year says something. Of course, it also says something that I sat down to watch those episodes in mid-January instead of just deleting them. As I marveled at the DVR’s ability to serve as a time machine, catching glimpses of commercials for movies that feel like they came out forever ago, there was one constant: Raising Hope remains a very fun and affecting sitcom that more people should be watching. Phil’s busy tonight, so I decided to step in to write about a show that I don’t know I’ve ever written about critically, which may mean that some more general observations might sneak in here in addition to thoughts on “Tarot Cards.”
One thing my marathon demonstrated was how Raising Hope has a way of settling into a groove that, while pleasant, doesn’t exactly compel you to watch the show in a timely fashion. While some sitcoms provide clear goals or major serialized elements—like Leslie’s city council campaign on Parks and Recreation, for example—Raising Hope lives in the day-to-day challenges of raising a baby and being a family. It’s become an old-fashioned model of storytelling, and I do think that it’s part of why audiences (both online and offline) haven’t taken to the show in the same way as they’ve taken to NBC’s sitcoms.
Raising Hope does have some ongoing storylines, as we saw tonight with the return of Jimmy’s crush on Sabrina and her perpetually-on-the-rocks relationship with Wyatt (which I’ll discuss a bit more later), but it very rarely seems driven by those storylines. Instead, the primary engine behind Raising Hope’s storytelling is the past rather than the future, with a large number of episodes dominated by flashback structures of some kind. While the Chance family is focused on providing a better life for Hope, which could suggest a focus on the future, the primary narrative drive behind the show is the desire to make up for past mistakes. This is a show about retribution, rather than aspiration, which I find quite nuanced but which doesn’t drive week-to-week viewership in the same way as “progress” or “achievement.”
That’s why something about “Tarot Cards” felt so jarring to me, given the episode’s strategy of shifting many of its characters into planning out a new path for their future. Wyatt waltzes in to invite Sabrina to Africa with him, while tax season pushes Burt to the brink of hysteria, prompting Virginia to explore the potential of starting her own business while Burt does everything he can to give away responsibility for his own.
I understand where the show is coming from with these storylines. While these characters may not be particularly aspirational on an average day, they are also inherently frustrated with their lives, and will jump at any opportunity to get ahead that lands in their lap (like, for example, the invention contest episode with Patton Oswalt). Virginia evokes the American Dream within the episode, and that idea is always hovering around the family as they navigate life as a lower class family (albeit one with three fairly steady jobs). If you show Virginia a way she can make easy money bossing people around under the guise of Tarot readings, and if you show Burt a way to make the same amount of money while doing less work, they are powerless to ignore those opportunities.
Ultimately, though, Raising Hope feels like a far less compelling show to me when it’s operating in this mode. Now, let’s be clear: Raising Hope remains a funny show when it looks to the future, with Virginia’s storyline proving particularly effective at delivering some great one-liners and also some fun physical humor. Martha Plimpton is really at home in this role, as indicated by how much of the Tarot storyline was just her riffing to voiceless extras, and I would effectively watch her do anything on the show at this point. Similarly, while I thought the overall impact of Burt’s storyline was lesser (especially given that it never really got a proper ending), there were still some fun moments (“This must be what the E Street Band feels like!”, Barney’s terrible “Chinese Checkers” joke) that remind us how sharp and clever this show can be.
There just isn’t the same kind of meaning that there can be when the show becomes more introspective, exploring the depths of the status quo instead of introducing short term disruptions that will be quickly wrapped up within a single episode. I understand why Jimmy has to have a crush on Sabrina, but every time the show trots out Wyatt it reminds me that I like the Jimmy/Sabrina pairing far more when the show isn’t paying any attention to it. It’s a “Will They, Won’t They” relationship that the show itself seems entirely disinterested in, and which has lost any resonance it might have had in the beginning. While the show can be a bit treacle with its sentiment at times, that sentiment is a key ingredient in its success, and to see it so absent within what was here presented as a central love triangle felt like a distraction from the inter-family dynamics the show seems more interested in.
Perhaps that question of family is what was missing here. While Virginia and Burt each learn lessons at the end of the episode, with Virginia discovering that being her own boss means being responsible when your predictions cause someone to get hit by a car and Burt realizing that he wants control over the radio station and the lunch menu if not necessarily his finances, those are personal lessons that never wholly coalesce into the broader ensemble. Plimpton and Dillahunt are certainly capable of carrying their own storylines, and the show has turned them against one another before with some success, but something about “Tarot Cards” felt counter-productive to the dynamics that make Raising Hope distinctive without necessarily abandoning what makes it funny.
- Given that Todd is reviewing Carnivàle, and given the centrality of tarot cards to the episode, anyone care to share their favorite televisual dabblings in this particular prognosticative art? And yes, I’m going to be a jerk and claim “Lisa’s Wedding.” TV Tropes has more.
- I like the little nods to the relative lack of culture received by the Chance family, like Virginia’s observation that Oprah has abandoned those of her viewers who can’t afford cable. Those observational details are always quite fun, which is why I feel the show works best when they’re more central to key storylines. I did enjoy, though, how the texting while driving looped back around to the conclusion — I enjoy a good cyclical narrative.
- It’s an easy joke, but I do love a good “Character unable to escape poorly thought-out door covering” bit — the beads were a lot of fun.
- The show tends to play fast and loose with Jimmy’s intelligence, but “gentile mutilation” felt like a bit of a stretch. Or maybe I’m just less likely to accept it when it’s also a joke about genital mutilation.
- Speaking of the Chance’s lack of culture and Jimmy’s intelligence, Jimmy on Africa: “I’ve only seen it in cartoons, but it looks hilarious!”
- “It doesn’t have to be a Fortunate 500 company or anything.”
- “Not even that vampire puppet on TV who likes to count…I can’t remember his name!”