This fall, Fox presented two live-action sitcoms to me, a huge champion of Arrested Development and sorta-fan of My Name Is Earl.
1) Running Wilde: created by Mitch Hurwitz (Arrested Development) and Jim Vallely (Arrested __Development), starring Will Arnett (Arrested Development)
2) Raising Hope: created by Greg Garcia, the man behind Earl and (shudder) Yes, Dear
If you were to ask me three months ago which pilot would be funnier, I would be shocked at the answer: Raising Hope. My review — which invokes the Coen Brothers for some reason — after the jump.
The first act of Hope is reminiscent of the breathless Raising Arizona opening (at a pace not quite so breakneck) — I don’t reckon that’s a coincidence. Earl was certainly influenced by the work of the Coens, at least in the shared interest in the comedic potential of the hillbilly sensibility. Here, the link between titles (“Raising [quirky baby name]”) and the motif of questionable parenting is either an homage or a severe case of absentmindedness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You don’t know that the baby’s name is Hope. In fact, after the Arizona-lite introduction, you believe that the baby’s name is Princess Beyonce. How this young child came to be named Princess Beyonce is in all actuality horrific — terribly dark for a network drama, much less a comedy.
To elude the man chasing her down the street, the bubbly Lucy (guest star Bijou Phillips) hops into the van of our protagonist, Jimmy (Lucas Neff), and they speed away. Because he’s “cute,” Phillips expresses her gratitude with a passionate kiss before they take things to the back of the van. Jimmy understandably falls head over heels for the girl, which is unfortunate, because in addition to being bubbly she happens to also be a dangerous murderer on the lam. Worse, in the heat of passion, neither party made the appropriate effort to prevent conception. So Lucy gives birth to the baby on death row, raises her to the age of six months, names her “Princess Beyonce,” and sits down in the electric chair. End of act one.
We’re beyond any form of realism at this point (not a complaint), so the state awards custody to a clearly underqualified Jimmy. He seeks the help and advice of father Bert (Garret Dillahunt) and mother Virginia (Martha Plimpton) — despite their dubious parenting style — as well as sardonic grocery store clerk Sabrina (Shannon Woodward), whom he recently befriended.
Neff does a fine job at the center of the show, though he’s not the main attraction. Dillahunt has amassed a lot of respect over a series of generally terrific guest spots over the last decade: Deadwood, Burn Notice, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Damages. He doesn’t squander it here. The fun he has with the role is infectious. I mostly know Plimpton from How to Make In America, which does not cast her in a favorable light. But she gets some good lines in, and impressed me with her singing voice. Woodward is adorably mischievous, and I hope she’s paired with Dillahunt a time or ten down the road. Could be a potent combo.
I believe Garcia proved himself a capable and witty showrunner with Earl, which holds up pretty well in countless reruns on TBS. Most of the gags in the Hope pilot work, and when things start to feel too mean-spirited (“Look at how stupid these hicks are!”), Garcia pulls his foot off the pedal just enough to reveal the heart of the show. I’ve seen the pilot a couple times now, as well the preview clip that featured the scene, and the acoustic rendition of “Danny’s Song” gets me every time. It’s always stuck in my head for days afterward. Like right now. (“People smile and tell me I’m the lucky one…”)
So, intellectually, I can identify that I liked the Raising Hope pilot more than the Running Wilde pilot. And yet, even if the motivation is purely sentimental, I can guarantee I will watch every episode of Wilde for at least a season. I can’t say the same for Hope. For some undefinable reason, I can see Hope will be the type of show I enjoy when I catch it, however infrequently that may be.
… Or at least that’s how I initially ended this review. As I wrote as fondly as above, I convinced myself that I need to watch this. With no clear standouts like last year’s crop led by Modern Family and Community, Raising Hope is the most promising new sitcom of the fall. What’s the point of writing about TV if I don’t watch that kind of show? So my pact for the season is this: I will watch Raising Hope for at least as long as I stick with Running Wilde. The pilot wasn’t perfect, but I don’t expect to regret that commitment.
Raising Hope premieres Tuesday, September 21st at 9/8c on Fox.