The other day, a few of my film critic buddies were duking it out on Twitter over an arty independent film that two of them found formally exciting and even profound in its depiction of lower-middle-class life in America, but the third found too snobbishly dreary. I liked the movie in question (it’s Putty Hill, if you’re curious), but I could still see my third friend’s point. Often, critics hail austere foreign or indie films because they’re set among the impoverished, which apparently makes them more “real” than if the filmmakers had set up their cameras outside some rich dude’s swimming pool. And yet when I watch those movies, I wonder: Why are the poor so quiet? Why do they spend so much time staring morosely into the distance? I grew up in a lower-middle-class family, and trust me, we talked constantly, even if it was just to complain about having to eat bean soup and bologna sandwiches for dinner again.
On the flipside, I know critics who don’t care for Greg Garcia’s sitcoms My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope because they say the shows treat poor and lower-middle-class people as figures of fun—and often as grotesques. I respect that perspective, but I can’t share it, for three reasons:
1. Garcia’s not aiming for docu-realism; he’s trying to be funny.
2. His shows are funny.
3. I’d rather spend time with Garcia’s cartoony “trash” than with a lot of well-off yahoos from other sitcoms.
Anyway, apologies for the preamble, but since I’m filling in here for one week only, I wanted y’all to know where my head is at, Raising Hope-wise. Like Earl in its heyday, this show strikes me as inventive, good-hearted, and wacky in the right way. It’s not perfect—sometimes it’s too gross for my taste, and sometimes too pathetic—but there’s a joy about Raising Hope’s underclass comedy that I’ll take over any earnest slice-of-drama that aims to punish audiences with squalor.
For example, in this week’s episode “Cultish Personality,” there’s a moment when Burt goes to see his brother Bruce (played by J.K. Simmons!) to see if Bruce will take back his wayward son Mike. The two brothers argue about whether Burt’s too big of a loser or if Bruce is too full of himself, and then Burt starts ripping tags off the mattresses in Bruce’s store. Not the freshest joke in the world, true, but it leads to the sublimely silly sight-gag of Bruce chasing Burt around the store, both of them hopping from mattress to mattress. That’s not something I expect to see on any other sitcom this month.
I also don’t expect to see another plot like the one in “Cultish Personality,” which is all about how Mike arrives at his favorite uncle’s house with his new wife (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub!) and his three “brother-husbands.” Turns out that the ever-gullible Mike has fallen in with a cult of reverse-gender polygamists, which would be fine, except that the husbands have had it with Mike, who never pays attention to them. So while Burt tries to get Bruce to reclaim Mike, Jimmy works to get the boy reaccepted into his freaky new family. The problem? Both are successful.
As always, the jokes in this episode of Raising Hope are hit-and-miss. Rajskub is wasted here, getting maybe four lines, and the whole cult storyline shades too far into the creepy at times, especially when Mike sings a song hailing the unique virtues of his brother-husbands. The plot resolution is pretty dopey too, as Burt tries to bring Mike back by calling the police and claiming that Mike and his spouses have kidnapped Hope.
But damn it, Garret Dillahunt is such a sweetheart as Burt and so funny as he eagerly explains his plan as just like the one from that “balloon boy” guy, not realizing that Richard Heene went to jail for his hoax. (Cue a confused Burt: “What did he do wrong?”) Burt’s funny in jail, too, playing I Spy with his cell mate, using the three or four objects in their cell. (“Is it the light?” “Yes.”)
Simmons is hilarious, too, as Bruce, answering Virgina’s offer of something to eat with a gruff, “No need to spray cheese on anything,” and answering Burt’s complaint that his idea of success is having a good job and a lot of money with a curt, “It’s the dictionary’s definition.” Bruce also complains when he cuts his hand on a piece of metal, snapping, “Hello tetanus shot, goodbye $20 co-pay!”—the kind of “what money can buy”-focused joke that Garcia’s shows do so well.
And then there are the little gags weaving through “Cultish Personality,” some of them recurring (like the game of hide-and-seek that Maw Maw keeps playing long after the rest of the family has moved on) and some throwaway (like when Sabrina prepares a list of questions for the polygamists and then has to cross them all out when she finds out that they won’t discuss their sex life).
But my favorite bits in this episode involved Jimmy, who it turns out is a lot like his cousin Mike in that he’s easily led. (Jimmy was once tempted by a cult that worships Josh Groban.) The difference is that while Mike (like his dad), is too into himself, Jimmy (like his dad) takes a genuine interest in others. He pops by the brother-husbands’ RV to sell them on Mike, and he ends up hanging out with them, watching Lord Of The Rings and eating snacks, singing songs about how “old religions are dusty.”
That whole subplot works because Lucas Neff has become a much more relaxed and likable actor than he was when Raising Hope began and because the show has developed his character right along with everyone else’s, adding kinks and wrinkles that make them multi-dimensional, not generic underclass bozos.
- “The last time I offered him a cold drink, he stayed for six years.”
- “He said he’d be back every fifth Thanksgiving.”
- “You know what the sacred pamphlet says.”