Even in idyllic, post-racial America, there are some things that can really spook white people. For instance, as I watched Virginia wash the windows of a black family while taking orders from her Hispanic boss in this episode of Raising Hope, I couldn’t help but think I was watching Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare realized. A show where the Spanish-speaking maids laugh at a white boy’s clumsy gringo accent (“Ho-law, Row-suh. Me law-mow ess Jimmy”)? Sign me up—I think. It’s just that here’s what I can’t decide: Is Raising Hope on the side of evil, or the side of good?
In this country, sitcoms tend to be aspirational. “Average” families actually tend to be upper-middle class or higher—like Claire and Heathcliff Huxtable or the single-earner families on Modern Family. The most notable exception to this in recent memory was Roseanne, which depicted the white, lower-income Connor family with mildly startling verisimilitude. The Connors lived in a smallish house decorated with drab furniture, lived in a Rust Belt state, dressed like schlumps, and were a good 40 pounds overweight. Raising Hope has garnered buzz for its portrayal of the supposedly forgotten white underclass, but unlike its forebear Roseanne, this show doesn’t strive for realism—not even a sitcom-ish variety of realism.
First, there’s the considerable quirk factor. I’m still puzzling over this one, but for some reason I’m not too bothered by the Chances’ numerous “cute” eccentricities. In this episode, for instance, Jimmy resorts to using a plastic recorder to simulate a touch-tone dial on his family’s ancient rotary phone. “I use this when I call Moviefone,” Virginia explains, which, one might argue, is also an antiquated thing to do. The point is, it’s almost unbearably quirky. I haven’t quite figured out why sitcom quirk is less egregious to me than feature-film quirk, but it is—maybe it’s just that we are more willing to accept this winking stuff in 22-minute chunks.
But the real issue here is not the quirk itself but the end result of said quirk. It’s the fact that poverty, or near-poverty, or however you want to describe the Chances’ tenuous financial situation—is portrayed as a charming eccentricity, a wacky lifestyle choice—not a back-breaking, degrading, soul-crushing experience. Burt and Virginia are so “out there,” they serve Kraft singles and boxed wine to their dinner guests! Watching Virginia clean apartments, I kept thinking about Barbara Ehrenreich complaining endlessly about her back pain in Nickel and Dimed (a book which I actually sort of hated, but that’s a topic for another day). Shouldn’t she be in pain from all the menial labor—you know, icing her arthritic limbs or coughing as a result of all the chemical fumes? I’m joking, but not entirely. Virginia is a little rough around the edges, but all in all, she’s a pretty vibrant, energetic gal, one who doesn't seem too bothered to be scrubbing people's toilets. Maybe I'm a jerk for expecting her to be more miserable. The Chances' house, once you look past the rotary phone and the drab paint, is actually pretty nice (am I crazy or does it remind anyone else of the Fishers abode on Six Feet Under?). And dang if it isn’t spacious. Most problematic is that the show makes it seem like Virginia and Burt’s indigence was borne of their youthful laziness, which is what people like Sarah Palin would probably want you to believe. Yes, the show occasionally suggests that Burt and Virginia didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, but then we’re reminded, yet again, of how irresponsible they were, too.
So, Raising Hope is not exactly borrowing from the Ken Loach, social-realism playbook. This is a sitcom, after all. These not-insignificant quibbles aside, my feeling—and I’m open to debate here—is that it’s better to have an unrealistic working-class family on TV than none at all. There was something exhilarating and audacious about this episode, in which the Chances meet a family that, in many significant ways, is just like their own. Just like Virginia and Burt, they had a kid in high school, and now, their son, Justin, is a single dad, raising a baby on his own. Only they’ve made all the right decisions, which means they live in a big house they can pay Virginia to clean. Also, they're black. Just imagine if Justin’s family had been white, and you’d have a pretty formulaic sitcom episode on your hands—"Keeping up with the Joneses," and all that. There’s a false distinction made between race and class in this country, and there was something especially provocative about the way this episode simultaneously played on two topics that Americans get squeamish about. It's unfortunate that the possibility of white people cleaning the homes of wealthy black people freaks out millions of Americans, and maybe I should pretend like it doesn't matter, but I'm glad Raising Hope is willing to point this out. I keep thinking of a scene in the episode of Raising Hope in which they’re trying to qualify for a scholarship at the fancy nursery school in town. Jimmy is shocked to learn that his family is poor. “But I thought we were lower, lower, lower middle class?” he asks Virginia. (I’m paraphrasing here.) It’s a cliché, but an accurate one, to say that most Americans think they’re middle class even if, by definition, we can't all be in the middle. For the working-class, it’s an aspirational thing; for the wealthy, it’s a combination of modesty and resistance to taxes. Sure, maybe there’s some danger and some indelicacy in laughing at the uninsured, which Raising Hope has done, but it’s better than pretending we all live in million-dollar suburbs. Tick-tock, indeed.
Now, lest this be the most humorless recap ever, a few great lines from this episode.
- 'Why should a dad and a dad be sad, when fun could be had?" Jimmy
- "My Snuggie is in the hamper. How am I supposed to watch Bones tonight and stay warm?" Justin's dad
- "Two penises in a pod." Sabrina
- "I put a condom on the banana when we had sex. She still got pregnant, and it made the banana taste terrible." Burt
- "It’s like they’re Ken and Barbie and we’re the Potato Heads." Virginia
- "Not only does he steal girls, but he also went through a phase where he grew one of those beards without a mustache. Gross." Virginia