Raising Hope is a sweet-natured gross-out comedy about a loving family that is one inherited house away from living on the street, and whose members lack the tools they’d need to better their station. Instability is built right into the package, which is one thing that makes the show exciting when it works. When it doesn’t work, it can still be exciting, or whatever word you’d care to apply to watching an overloaded 18-wheeler spin out on a icy road in heavy traffic. The sweetness, and the genuine feel for character that the actors supply, help to redeem a lot of white-trash jokes that would just be ugly if there weren’t real affection for the people onscreen. If the show can get an audience to share in that affection, it can seem to be promoting the idea that people who lack for ambition and brains matter. In the current cultural climate, it might not be a stretch to call that subversive.
The show is on shaky ground when it gets too cartoonish and chases down jokes at the expense of maintaining that solid connection to the characters, because if the Chances cease to seem realistically human on some level, they’re just useless buffoons. It’s on shakiest ground where Maw Maw is involved. Even when it loses its footing and the protective attitude toward the Chances dims a little, at least it’s making fun of people who are in the situation they’re in because they’ve made some dubious life choices. Maw Maw is in the situation she’s in because her brain is degenerating. She isn’t eccentric or wacky—she’s sick. She has dementia. The show must realize that there’s something a little off about inviting the audience to laugh at what are symptoms of a terrible illness, because it never misses a chance to insert reminders that, before age and illness hit her, Maw Maw appears to have been a pretty terrible person. There’s a faint suggestion that she deserves what’s happened to her, which is a godawful thing to suggest. There’s also a faint suggestion that being sick has partly redeemed her by making her loveable and entertaining, and that might be even worse.
Raising Hope subscribes to a low-comedy philosophy of life that believes that not having ambition, and maybe even not having any brains or money, liberates you from social constraints and the limits that common sense places on your behavior, enabling you to have fun doing crazy things. It’s a theory you could poke holes in if you were, say, writing a paper about the importance of individual responsibility for the American Enterprise Institute, but it has a basic fantasy appeal and makes for a pretty good playing field if you’re looking to start a comedy. Sometimes, the show seems to be trying to extend that argument to say that maybe Alzheimer’s—I don’t think the show has ever actually whispered the word aloud, but it seems a likely diagnosis—is the best thing that ever happens to some people. Isn’t it possible that Maw Maw has lucked out, having been freed from her worldly concerns to spend her twilight years in a magical land of pure imagination? The only possible response to this is to say, “No, it isn’t, and remind me why I ever let you in my living room?” Adding to the element of discomfort is the fact that, when the jokes involving Maw Maw don’t work, you’re left with the sight of an 86-year-old actress embarrassing herself while trying to push the envelope of frat-house slapstick. At such moments, one can hide behind such kneejerk reactions as, “That Cloris Leachman sure is a trouper.” But in the post-Jackass show-business environment, the line between being a trouper and being an elderly performer who will do anything to stay relevant is getting thinner all the time.
This week, Social Services cracks down on the Chances over their treatment of Maw Maw. The social worker—played by a poised, confidently funny Jenny Slate—reports to the Chance residence to investigate a report of child endangerment, and there’s some brisk comedy involving the family’s efforts to keep her away from Hope—“The government’s here to take the baby,” Burt tells Jimmy, leaning in through the bedroom window. “Toss her over here, and I’ll hide her under the car”—before the social worker explains that she’s there because of a red flag that someone sent up 20 years ago about Jimmy. (They’ve been a little backed up down at Social Services.) Then the social worker sees Virginia controlling Maw Maw by blasting her with water from a spray bottle while shouting, “No! Room! Room!” This is actually the first thing in the episode that made me laugh out loud, which just goes to show what I meant about the show’s unstable quality. There’s always the chance that if, it keeps pushing farther past good taste than it’s ever gone before, it’ll strike gold. Too often in this episode, it strikes something else.
One big problem is that the show is settling into a broadly cartoonish groove, and the characters themselves are losing their connection to reality. They now inhabit a pinched netherworld where the people just say and do any crazy shit that comes into their heads, but may suddenly invoke their right to claim an emotional investment from the audience at any time. Todd Giebenhain seems to thrive there, and Martha Plimpton is unsinkable, but Lucas Neff and Garret Dillahunt are showing signs of strain, and Shannon Woodward, once the token voice of reason from the normal world, has to respond with bland acceptance to so many things that would send most people running over the next hill that she just seems to be along for the ride. (The most promising thing in the episode, because it seems like a logical development in Sabrina’s relationship with Jimmy, is her making a first tentative move toward getting him to grow up a little. It’s symbolized by her determination to get him to stop wearing a T-shirt decorated with the words “I’M WITH STUPID” and an arrow pointing toward his crotch. “The things you do say something about me,” she explains, “ and while that shirt may say that your penis is stupid, it definitely says my vagina is an idiot.”) Tonight’s episode ends with a cliffhanger, when Slate’s minions come and take Maw Maw away. Presumably, all this will be hashed out next week, but viewers may need more time than that to think of a reason why getting Maw Maw out of that house is a bad idea.