With the initiation of the 2010 television season, FOX was pinning its hopes and its largest advertising dollars on a couple of shows that ended up failing to strike a chord with the public. The promising serialized drama "Lone Star" was gone in two episodes and the high profile sitcom "Running Wilde" never gathered sufficient viewers and was dismissed by mid-season. Flying under the proverbial radar, however, was the wacky family of "Raising Hope." Created by the same team who made "My Name Is Earl" such a surprising success (remember how fresh Earl's early seasons were?), "Raising Hope" also balances an eccentric clan of working class heroes with clever slapstick shenanigans. But in a sitcom world populated with snappy one-liners and superficial partnerships, this program defies expectations by having a real heart. Aside from ABC's "The Middle," no other current television family seems to face the economic trials and tribulations inherent in much of America--and it is in providing recognizable moments (albeit very heightened) that "Raising Hope" stands as a true original.
There are plenty of peripheral characters on "Raising Hope"--some more successful than others--but the core family at the center of the show is its true soul. Lucas Neff plays the lead character with a gawky and understated charm and stands as a perfect centerpiece to ground the show's more lunatic aspects. In my opinion, he's a star! A single dad (to Hope), Neff still lives with his parents and is a stock boy at the local grocery store. His parents, Martha Plimpton and Garret Dillahunt, are doing the best that they can but have failed to realize the dreams of their youth. As if the house weren't crowded enough, Plimpton's sporadically lucid mother (Cloris Leachman) also meanders through the action. This quartet of performers play off one another wonderfully and through all the silliness and all the annoyances, they stand as a remarkably believable and loving family unit. "Raising Hope" is a wildly successful domestic comedy employing slapstick, ludicrous sight gags, and clever verbal interplay. I love these guys--Plimpton and Dillahunt are at the top of their game!
The show does, however, straddle numerous side plots and additional characters--and the show can lose its way a bit in juggling the extraneous material. Neff's supermarket girlfriend (Shannon Woodward) is a nice, if somewhat inconsistent, role. Her presence at family gatherings seems a bit mystifying at times--like the producers need to work her into the plot but don't know how to fully incorporate her into the action. One episode has the family deciding that she should inherit Hope should something happen to them. Huh? Really? Other supermarket employees provide the requisite wacky without any particular depth. Neff also has two friends that we see every 6-7 episodes for no apparent reason. And there are plenty of guest stars, many playing extended family members--Amy Sedaris and J.K. Simmons are particularly noteworthy. And the wonderful Kate Micucci pops up randomly as Shelly--as a romantic interest, or a babysitter, or to provide a random song. I love her, but again, it seems to be completely arbitrary when she materializes.
I haven't mentioned Leachman, a grand dame of comedy, that seems somewhat underutilized here. Some episodes, she doesn't even speak--she's just around for a visual punchline or two. I think the producers realized this and begin to make her more lucid and less crazy in alternate episodes. A fearlessly over-the-top performance, though, she's great. Along with Neff, Dillahunt, and Plimpton--this is easily one of my favorite television families. And the affection for one another is infectious. With heart and humor, you might identify aspects of your own upbringing in the eccentricities of "Raising Hope." I know I do. 4 1/2 stars, the show is still gaining traction and needs a little more evenness. If everything here were as solid as the main family unit, this could be classic. KGHarris, 3/11.