If you still aren’t watching Raising Hope, Fox’s charming comedy about a working-class family raising Hope, the baby who represents the fourth generation in the same house, together, I’d encourage you to check out last week’s episode and reconsider. In that installment, Jimmy Chance, Hope’s young father, decides to try to go back and get his GED, prompting his parents, Burt and Virginia, to confront their fears about falling behind their son in education. While the way Jimmy finally gets his degree is very funny, the episode is really about teaching people who have never had much in the way of education that learning can be tremendously fun and rewarding. Watching Burt, for example, embrace Shakespeare after Jimmy’s coworker Frank tells him to try to picture the action as it unfolds rather than focusing on individual words is lovely: he ends up transfixed by the fight that opens Romeo and Juliet, and he and Frank fence through the supermarket in made-up weapons and armor. It helps that Garrett Dillahunt is wonderful at selling Burt: as he said at the Television Critics Association press tour, “I love playing the fools. I never understand actors who never want to appear weak. I think that’s where we learn so much about people. I enjoy falling down. I enjoy making mistakes. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t let too much get him down.” It’s Burt’s resilience that makes it particularly rewarding when he gets a win.
And Greg Garcia, the show’s creator, has set up an environment where even when the Chances are doing things that most television characters take for granted, like trying to learn basic math, science, and history, they’re never objects of contempt or ridicule. In a world of aspirational television, where schoolteachers like Jess on New Girl live in vast apartments and even goofy characters like Phil Dunphy on Modern Family are wildly successful, that makes the Chances different, and refreshing, even when it’s not easy to pull off. When we spoke at press tour, Garcia acknowledged that he’s been told that not being aspirational might turn viewers off.
“Those are the shows I like so that’s what I’m going to write. Some people are like, when we first started developing this show, they were like ‘Oh, well, I don’t know maybe the house is too dirty and maybe people don’t want to watch,’” he said. “And I was like ‘They’re not in the house, they’re in their house. They’re just watching.’…I like to go to the zoo and watch the lions. I don’t want to be in there with them…I certainly can’t say that’s not true because maybe it is. But I like the show that I write.”
That’s not an entirely comfortable sentiment. But to a certain extent, it’s what we do when we look upwards, too. We judge the Real Housewives in their plastic, manicured homes just as much as we’re amused and a little shocked when Burt and Virginia refuse to act like functional adults. But while we root for the ludicrously rich to fall, we’re cheering for the Chances to win.