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Checking In on a Freshman Comedy: 'Raising Hope' Raises Its Game

by Maureen Ryan, posted Mar 1st 2011 4:15PM
You can't judge a book by its cover, and it's likewise difficult to judge a TV show by its first episode. This new "Checking In" series will revisit shows that debuted in the last few months to see whether they've improved or declined. I'll also occasionally check in on veteran comedies and dramas to assess what's working and what isn't.

I might as well get this out of the way first: Last fall, 'Raising Hope' was on my list of Worst New Shows. You could say I didn't much care for the show's blaring, over-caffeinated pilot, and I know, that makes me a mean old stick in the mud. What kind of crabbypants doesn't think a baby watching her prisoner mother being executed is hilarious?

Fortunately, 'Raising Hope' (which airs Tuesday at a special time, 9:30PM ET) has toned down a lot of the antic elements that grated on me in the pilot. Some of its characters don't quite work and the show's forays into gross-out humor are still not my cup of tea, but 'Raising Hope' has certainly raised its game. Last week's episode, which featured a fine guest turn from Amy Sedaris, was actually pretty entertaining.

Sedaris played Cousin Delilah, the childhood tormenter of Virginia (Martha Plimpton), and if Sedaris were to join the cast permanently (or just stop by regularly), I'd watch 'Raising Hope' a lot more. Sedaris fit in perfectly with the show's slightly trashy vibe, and the way Virginia and her husband, Burt (Garret Dillahunt), united to fend off her creepy advances gave all three actors a lot of excellent material to play.

Oddly enough, Plimpton and Dillahunt sometimes present a barrier to enjoying 'Raising Hope.' They are outstanding actors -- that should go without saying. But they have terrific ranges that the show doesn't always tap, and having seen both play very wily characters over the years, it can be hard to believe them as not-very-bright people.

For instance, I would buy David Koechner ('The Office's' Todd Packer) as the kind of guy who'd stick his hand in a toaster in order to film a 'Jackass'-like stunt. It's just harder to buy when the same stunt is attempted by Dillahunt, who's played chillingly intelligent characters on everything from 'Deadwood' to 'Burn Notice' to 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.' It's not the actor's fault, but part of my brain says, "He's too smart for that."

Still, the more subtle the material, the more convincing Dillahunt is in the role, and, as the show has evolved, the writers been wisely mixing more dryly witty moments and clever humor into the show. Plimpton is similarly good at selling the show's emotional moments. She brilliantly nailed Virginia's nostalgia in a recent episode in which the family discovered Paw Paw's old home movies in Maw Maw's old trunk. In the early going, the show tended to throw in a slapdash "heartfelt" moment into each episode's closing minutes, but now 'Hope's' relationships and emotional moments feel a bit more earned.

Speaking of Maw Maw, last week's episode actually featured an effective scene for Cloris Leachman's addled grandmother character: She was briefly a greeter at the grocery store where Jimmy (Lucas Neff) works, and of course she had a well-placed, if spacey, insult for every shopper who came through the door. I think that's the first Maw Maw scene I've ever truly enjoyed, mostly because the writers gave her actual funny stuff to do; they didn't just use her as the source of broad sight gags and gross-out jokes. To say Maw Maw is an acquired taste is an understatement, but at least these days, she usually doesn't detract from whatever else is going on and once in a while she's mildly amusing.

I get the sense that the show hasn't fully figured out what to do with Jimmy, who doesn't take center stage the way Earl did in executive producer Greg Garcia's previous show, 'My Name Is Earl.' Jimmy's attempts to raise his infant daughter are pretty much out of the Sitcom 101 playbook, and Neff, while likable, isn't charismatic enough to make those kinds of run-of-the-mill stories better than they are.

The recent episodes I watched also didn't give a ton of good material to Shannon Woodward, who plays Jimmy's store co-worker and secret crush, Sabrina. Jimmy and Sabrina should be more of a draw than they are, but so far the unrequited romance stories, the baby-raising stories and the work stories don't always meld in graceful or interesting ways. Still, both actors bring a low-key likability to the show and my TV Squad colleague Joel Keller has argued the relaxed nature of their relationship is one of the show's chief draws. There's no doubt that it's good to have a contrast from the more wacky things that go on at Casa Chance.

All in all, 'Raising Hope' is less abrasive and more grounded than it was when it first debuted, and though has a broader tone than most of the comedies I tend to enjoy, 'Hope' is sometimes capable of the kind of whimsical sweetness that 'Earl' exuded in its pleasing early seasons. This new Fox comedy hasn't fully gelled yet, but its evolving in the right direction, and there's hope that it's on an upward trajectory.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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This is the best show ever! I don't agree with a lot of what Maureen Ryan said. She is taking this show too seriously. It's supposed to be stupid fun. I love it!

March 10 2011 at 2:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If Amy Sedaris was on Raising Hope as a regular I would stop watching the show, she's annoying and grating.

March 06 2011 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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March 01 2011 at 9:09 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I love this show and I especially enjoy Garrett Dillahunt. He is soooo funny!

March 01 2011 at 6:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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