Our TV week is bookended by sitcom goodbyes. It began with the series finale of How I Met Your Mother; it concludes with the capper to Raising Hope, tapping out tonight with back-to-back episodes, including one cheekily entitled “How I Met Your Mullet.” Created by Greg Garcia, who also gave us My Name Is Earl, the four-season-running Raising Hope was a sweet-and-salty sitcom about the daffy-dumb Chance clan – Virginia, the responsible materfamilias (Martha Plimpton); Burt, the air-headed dad (Garret Dillahunt); Jimmy, the teen-son-turned-teen-father (Lucas Neff); and Maw-Maw, the cracked and coarse grandma (Cloris Leachman) – collectively raising the titular babe, and was always a big-hearted, absurd amusement. One of its best episodes was the season 4 premiere, which featured Jeffrey Tambor as Virginia’s deadbeat dad, a self-centered gay man who skipped town because of perceived bigotry that was actually all in his head. The series finale sees the return of Tambor, with a story that thematically brings the series full circle.
Raising Hope was a funny show that was never funny enough to make me a regular viewer. Watching the last two episodes, I was more reminded of why I found it easier to resist than succumb. Some of it was just taste. I appreciated the portrayal of a struggling, cash-strapped family – a timely play, for sure – but the poor-white-trash farce hit the post for me, especially the episodes or moments that seemed to be all about being poor white trash. In one of tonight’s episodes, Burt turns down a gift of a fancy new outdoor barbeque because he prefers the makeshift one he’s used for years – an overturned grocery cart. The gag of cart-as-BBQ is silly enough to be funny, but I didn’t laugh, because I was like: “TAKE THE FANCY NEW BARBEQUE ALREADY!”
Raising Hope mitigated all of its edge with formal choices and other touches that were constantly telling you: “Don’t take this too seriously.” The fakeness of the soundstage sets. The bright, unnatural studio lighting. The peppy theme song and whimsical, whistle-y, softly-played score, pushing you through the story like supermarket background Muzak. The implicit “just-kidding” approach the actors took to portraying dopiness. The sum total of these qualities: a mixed message. No, I never took anything too seriously…because Planet Chance was a world without real grounding, a world I never really believed in.* (This is to say nothing of Raising Hope’s occasional indulgence of pop parody/homage, like the Rear Window-themed “Murder, She Hoped.” Again: impressive and charming, at the expense of undermining its reality.)
*Reflecting on the aesthetic of Raising Hope makes me realize how much my tastes have been shaped/reshaped by the trend toward naturalism in sitcoms via the mockumentary format and cinema verite style. See: Arrested Development, Parks & Recreation, The Office, Veep.
There were other aspects of the show that put me off, too. Jimmy – who provided the show’s light touch narration – was too soft, too bland to be a compelling center. Raising Hope also liked to do that thing of stopping the narrative for a brief flashback to show us something referenced in the present, bracketed by a pair of visual cues or sound effects, the equivalent of parenthesis. (Brooklyn Nine-Nine does this, too, using walkie-talkie squawks – easily my least favorite thing about the show. It’s like they think that if they don’t do it, we idiots won’t get that it’s a flashback.) It’s richness at the expense of pace, and Raising Hope sometimes couldn’t resist stuffing those tangents with one gag too many, the bonus gag usually being a dull one, thus diminishing the whole set. (See: the flashback parenthetical about Virginia-Burt wedding gifts in the first of tonight’s episodes.)
While I was only a spotty fan of Raising Hope, and while I can’t say the show goes out on a strong note, the pair of episodes that function as its finale charmed me in a way that the How I Met Your Mother finale did not: They have no ambition, no aspiration to be – how did Barney put it in HIMYM? – “Legen-dary!” Series finales can go wrong when they abandon the storytelling that got them there and write to the moment, the perceived/assumed “obligations” of a series finale. Like:
The obligation to be an event. Usually expressed via super-sized episodes, a choice that disrupts the hardwired rhythms of a show and is rarely justified with meaningful story. What you usually get (and this was the case with the double-truck hour-long HIMYM finale) is bogus tension (Robin withdraws from her community of friends! Will the fellowship ever be restored?!) and too many “One Last Time” moments. These choices typically turn finales into overly sentimental affairs, although that satisfies the other assumed obligation of a series finale:
The obligation to big emotion over big ideas. Make us laugh. Make us cry. Make us feel. Which are not bad goals. But if they are achieved through contrived means or over-emphasized to distract from flaws – like, say, a series-long narrative that doesn’t quite add up – it feels manipulative and insulting.
The obligation to redemptive character transformation. Again, not a bad thing. But when it’s not properly scaled throughout the course of a series – when a character has been acting out of a certain pathology for years and years and years, and then suddenly morphs in the finale – it not only feels forced, it feels reductive of the character. See: Barney finally being magically cured of his chauvinistic, womanizing ways by simply looking into the eyes of the child born of his climactic “perfect month” hook-up with (shudder) “Number 31.” This choice highlighted another HIMYM finale fail: Showing us and reminding us how these friends affected each other’s lives, which I think is an obligation any show about community should meet. Unless you’re The Sopranos, and you’re brilliant enough to sell us on the cynical notion that people never change at all. (TV is bad/compromised/handcuffed in general when it comes to change because of the way TV writers approach/are made to approach character: as a collection of a few, immutable, signature qualities, quirks and flaws that should never, ever change, at least, not until the show’s end or the character’s end.) I was disappointed that the HIMYM writers had Barney respond to his divorce from Robin by having him revert back to his loutish Don Juan self. His marriage should have changed him, despite its failure; we should have seen how. Moreover, that relationship could have been the catalyst (instead of busted birth control) for becoming a more mature man. I liked the idea of making Barney a dad. But that could have been a choice, not an accident, one made possible by a move toward refinement facilitated by Robin and/or the example of his friends. And it would have dramatized how friendships/relationships impact individuals.
The Raising Hope series finale doesn’t take on or try to service any of these obligations…perhaps only because the Raising Hope writers might not have known they were writing a finale for the series. It certainly plays like a finale to this season, with the Tambor bookend, and the plot hits some strong sentimental chords. But there’s nothing that feels like “This is the end!” To me, it plays like a typical episode of Raising Hope; and as such, it affirms all of the values of the series and honors all of its characters with all of its usual strategies, without ever breaking form, without a want to be legendary. For better and for worse, Raising Hope goes out the show it’s always been: endearingly light and loony, not taking itself seriously at all.
For more about The Art of Saying Goodbye, pick up this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now, in which we talk to 10 TV writers about their iconic series finales.