February 3, 2011

Raising Hope: Understanding The Economic Crisis With A Laugh Track

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What is the issue?

There’s more to Raising Hope than a wacky comedy about a low-income family. Created by My Name is Earl’s Greg Garcia, the Fox sitcom—currently in midst of its first season, and renewed in January for a second season—may actually prove to be a thoughtful examination of America’s treatment of the lower class. Smart and hilarious, Garcia’s comedy lambastes America’s class system while celebrating humanity.

Garcia hasn’t come out and said it, but Raising Hope is more about America’s utter abandonment of its lower class and a family’s resolve to survive than a few cheap shots at wacky poor people. Many of the family’s problems are at the hands of society-at-large and dwindling and defunct social programs. From sex ed to health care, the Chance family has been thwarted for over 20 years.

23-year-old Jimmy, who failed to use a condom during his one-night stand, graduated from high school during the Bush Era. Then-President George W. Bush denied federal funding to any sex education program but abstinence-only based education. The teen birth rate in 2010 hit a record low, but a Congress-authorized study completed in 2007 found that less 25 percent of sexually active teens use a condom, half of the teens were sexually active, and more than one-third had multiple partners. Likewise, Jimmy’s parents Burt and Virginia (Garret Dillahunt and Martha Plimpton, respectively) were teenagers during Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, which included premarital sex in addition to drugs, but lacked practical information for sexually active teens.

What Garcia has said is that his disinterests lay in the wealthy characters who have it all together—he’s more interested in telling the stories of a working class family than The Real Housewives. And he’s made no apologies for the financial difficulties of the Chance family: “My characters don’t have more than about four shirts anyway in their closet,” he told The Washington Post in November.

Garcia has also noted the important distinction between the Chances and the characters of Earl. He told New York Magazine in October: “This show is just lower-income folks; they’re not criminals. And I don’t think they’re dumb as much as they’re just not as educated as perhaps they could be.” Social classes are typically divided by education, and the Chance family has no more than a high school education. (In one episode Burt discourages the idea of sending Hope to college: “That’s like $10,000, and then you’re screwed.”)

Burt and Virginia acknowledged twice in the first 11 episodes that without Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), Virginia’s grandmother, the family would be homeless. This is very real situation for many American families. The poverty rate in 2009, for which the U.S. Census has the most recent data, was 14.3 percent. The rate has steadily increased over the last three years.

In that same year, 46.3 million people were uninsured. 7.3 million of those people were under 18. Jimmy has never once been insured, or seen a doctor. He takes a second part-time job when he finds out that the grocery store in town is one of the few American businesses that provides all of its employees health care. Meanwhile, his father—who is also his employer—can’t afford to insure his only employee or his own family. (It seems unlikely that Burt’s previous employer would insure the family, though Burt briefly returned to the old business with the intention that it would.)

This second job is where Jimmy falls into yet another statistic: As of December 2010 the involuntary work force—people working part-time jobs for economic reasons—was 8.9 million people. Jimmy’s second job would insure Hope until she’s 26. House Republicans unanimously repealed the health care reform in mid-January. Though the Senate declined the revised bill, it would deny 30 million uninsured health care and add to the burden on small businesses—businesses like Burt’s.

All of these foibles should amount to one heck of a depressing show but this is not Teen Mom—where young people struggle to raise a child and grow up at the same time—or the dreaded Lifetime movie where parents step in to do all of the work while waiting for the young parent to realize responsibility.

From the outset, the Chance family seems woefully inadequate to raise Hope. In the first few minutes of the series Jimmy tells his cousin that he “tried to ride some dude’s Great Dane to the water tower.” (He says it “didn’t go well.”) When presented with Hope, he makes a radical turn toward maturity and makes massive strides toward responsible parenting.

There may be no television family better suited to rearing Hope than the Chance family. Placing an infant with reprehensible people is a common schtick these days, from The Hangover to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and it’s a tactic employed here, but it doesn’t stick. Raising Hope lacks the scheming and evil plotting that thrives within its competitors. Sunny, Modern Family, The Office, and Community all feature characters cheating and tricking each other for personal gain, but the few nefarious acts featured in Hope serve to keep the family afloat (Burt illegally sells the year’s hottest Christmas toys so the family can eat, while Virginia brings her own day-old bread stickers to the store). When the Chances break social norms—which is frequently, and often accidental—they do it with charm and aplomb.

Moreover, Burt, Virginia, and Maw Maw raised Jimmy, who turned out with the strongest moral compass on television. (When Virginia stages a competing living nativity, Jimmy manages to unite the two and provide the local church with its much needed donation.) He’s cheesy in his dedication to Hope and proclivity to doing the right thing, but his qualities are seemingly rare, making these saccharine acts easy to withstand. The Chances may not be not bright, but they’re ultimately good people.

Like everyone else, the Chances want more. These are people who work hard and dream constantly of a better life. Virginia hoards work freebies for the day she and Burt finally own a house of their own. Burt, like 21 percent of Americans, and 82 percent of buyers, believes playing the lottery will secure the family financial success and a nest egg.

If that seems depressing, it’s not. No one is more loyal and optimistic, while simultaneously realistic, than the Chance family. It’s hard not to root for them, despite their flaws and quirks. They know they’re poor and wacky, but they also know they have each other, which is better than having nothing at all.

This may be Garcia’s greatest success. Raising Hope is funny, but its charming, honest characters should be reason to laud the show as a success. The family’s quirks manage to elevate the show without insulting an entire social class—something that’s seemingly hard to do. A comedy wherein the cast has survived despite economic setbacks makes Raising Hope worth paying attention to. TC mark

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