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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Raising Hope: “Mrs. Smartypants”

Illustration for article titled Raising Hope: “Mrs. Smartypants”
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No subject that Raising Hope repeatedly taps into for humor is more fraught with peril than the Chances' intelligence. Over the holidays, while I was reading Owen Jones' Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Class, and listening to a lot of presidential candidates talk about how people who can't find jobs or afford medical care are the victims of bad choices they made themselves— in a tone that implies such people are unworthy of sympathy, let alone public assistance—I've been thinking a lot about images of the working poor in popular entertainment. Comic heroes in American movies and TV shows are sometimes very smart, which can get as tedious as watching dumbasses if they're consistently made to be the smartest people in the room, constantly scoring off evolutionary throwbacks who are served up to them as human sacrifices with low, sloping foreheads. Most of the few heroes of American TV comedies who have sometimes seemed in immediate danger of ending up on the street, such as Fred Sanford or Roseanne Connor, have been very smart, which made them seem resilient in the face of economic jeopardy, which in turn may have made their smartness seem less threatening to some viewers who don't cotton a lot of smart talk and book learnin'.

The mass audience is thought to have, at best, mixed feelings about people who might be smarter than they are, which is why one popular stereotype, broadly conceived enough to have accommodated the talents of Jim Nabors and Tom Hanks, is the really, really stupid guy whose stupidity is a state of grace, shielding him from doubts and temptations and elevating him to a higher moral plane. (I have a theory that one reason Forrest Gump was so beloved by so many people who ought to have known better, the people who made it very much included, is that they thought the key to Forrest's character was that he never compromised his principles because he was too unimaginative to know that he could do anything besides the obvious right thing in every situation, which is a very comforting attitude to take if you'd lived the kind of life that you may have to live to get in position to make a fifty-five-million-dollar movie about a magical half-wit. They might have liked to have been morally upright, unambiguously good people all their lives, but sadly, that option was never even open to them, because they had the misfortune to be smarter than the average rock.)

The Chances, being good-hearted, sweet-natured, and tacky, are much closer to the Gomer Pyle/Forrest Gump image than the Roseanne/Fred Sanford type, except that their goodness doesn't seem to be a necessary by-product of their dimness, and neither quality has made their lives any better. How many other modern heroes of successful TV series have only been stupid as hell, often destructively so? (Homer Simpson doesn't count, because the show he's on is a law unto itself.) Raising Hope is too nice a show to think that the Chances deserve to be poor because they're not packing any heavy lumber upstairs, but their shared condition sure doesn't make their lives any easier. Tonight's episode finally comes right out and suggests that Hope is probably going to wind up being smarter than the rest of the family combined, and part of the surprise of this being made explicit is that I realized that I'd always sort of assumed this was the case, but now I can't think of any concrete reason for my having made that assumption. Maybe it's just that, if it's just that Hope has always been presented as the Chances' great hope for a better future, which probably means a smarter future, and if you don't take it on faith that these hopes will eventually be realized, then this suddenly turns into one sad show.

Hope's superior braininess is first established here when it's pointed out that she has easily conquered an educational toy that had consistently left Jimmy in its dust. Virginia explains to Jimmy that Hope's intellect is solidly rooted in genetics: her mother "was a college graduate who avoided the police for years while she went on a murder spree. You're a high school dropout who's been arrested five times for peeing in public." (Burt apparently thinks this must be over Jimmy's head, because he tries to break it down further: "It's like the birds and the bees. Two birds have a baby, they have a bird. Two bees have a baby, they have a bee. You're like a bird that had a baby with a bee…") Rather than being thrilled about this breakthrough in the family's evolution, Jimmy becomes terrified at the thought that Hope will always be smarter than he is, and enrolls in night class to get his GED. Naturally, he is soon followed by his parents, who are mortified by the thought that he might become smarter than they are. Also naturally, the instructor is the same teacher who was present on those occasions when each of them got up in class and announced that they were quitting high school in disgust. That was good for a couple of flashbacks, including one to Jimmy's goth period. My favorite line of the night arrived when he jumped out his chair and yelled to a girl sitting near him, "C'mon, Venom, we're out of here!" "Dude," said Venom, "did you not read the restraining order?"

Aside from Venom, and the fact that Burt received tutoring for the big exam from Frank, which I love because I love the idea of Frank tutoring anyone for anything, the episode was just okay, with some funny bits (including a musical history tutorial that I hope Martha Plimpton is going to start including in her cabaret act), but a dismaying number of gags that felt not just predictable but practically pre-announced. When Burt pointed out to Jimmy, who was in the throes of frustration over that toy, that a man has to know his limitations and that he himself is content to amuse himself with a Slinky, you already knew that there would be a flashback and that Burt would be playing with a Slinky in it. When Jimmy grasped a scientific principle and said that one container was heavier than another because its contents had greater density, and Sabrina told him, "Now, volume," you knew that he was going to say the exact same thing, only louder. When Dexter opened up the freezer, you knew that he was going to find the professor's long-dead body preserved inside it. (That's a whole different show, but I'm still a little ticked off about it.) If you thought about it for a minute, you probably even knew that the GED instructor was going to be Fred Willard. Though I'm willing to concede that the confusion about "Pi R squared", because any fool knows that pies are round, was so dumb that it must have been intending as some kind of meta-textual commentary on the nature of dumb sitcom humor itself. Community, Community, every show on the air now wants to be Community.

Stray observations:

  • Burt, responding to Frank's command that he try to visualize the action while reading Romeo and Juliet: "I see it! I see the guys! Ha ha, they're wearing tights!"
  • Virginia, upon feeling her status in the family being challenged: "I'm not going from the Moe to the Curly in this trio."
  • At one point, Fred Willard scornfully tells Jimmy, "'I don't know' is not an answer." Actually, it is. It is very often the right answer, which doesn't keep it from being the least commonly deployed answer in all of Answerland. I hate to admit to a having a sore spot about this, but I used to do phone surveys for a living, and if you've ever wondered why this country is screwed up tighter than Dick's hatband, it's because politicians try to stay on the public's good side by consulting the opinions they express to pollsters, and all the people who talk to pollsters are idiots who, when asked whether they think the government spends too much or too little or just enough on defense or education or infrastructure or whatever would rather set their own hair on fire than say, "Damned if I know, because I don't have the slightest idea what they actually spend on those things now, which obviously disqualifies me from having an informed opinion on the subject, but if you like, I could offer you a worthless uninformed opinion that's heavily influenced by what I hear from wacky morning DJs." So screw you and the horse you rode in on, Fred Willard. It's no wonder the whole planet went to hell when you were President.