Bringing Up Baby: Why Raising Hope Gives Me Hope (and Modern Family Doesn't)

Nothing pushes my buttons more than a TV series that’s supposed to be “unconventional” or “risqué” or “quirky” when it’s actually the acme of conventionality but with a gay or non-white or disabled or mentally ill character in a title role. Cases in point: Glee, The Big C, and Modern Family.

I think enough has been written about the walking stereotypes that comprise the Glee cast, but please indulge me a brief tangent about Showtime’s insipid series The Big C, which stars Laura Linney as an uptight suburban housewife diagnosed with terminal melanoma. In an effort to live life to the fullest, she indulges in recklessly defiant activities like building a swimming pool and having an affair with a black man. Her husband is a stereotype, her son is a stereotype, her black teenaged student is a stereotype (she’s sassy and proud!), her best friend is a stereotype (promiscuous career woman), but wait! Her other best friend is gay and her brother is bipolar! Her brother’s mental illness features no discernable symptoms of bipolarity, but he is disdainful of materialism (must be a disease?), and moves into a suburban house when he starts taking his meds.

Mitchell and Cameron, two white men, with their Asian toddler Lily

Anyway. A commonality of these “unconventional” programs is that the adult characters learn life lessons from the child characters, I suppose because the parents are irresponsible, pot-smoking Baby Boomers or existentially confused Gen Xers. These TV parents are totally clueless, which is supposed to add some veneer of wackiness but is actually a rotted cliché. You know how Modern Family mom Claire (Julie Bowen) was a wild child in high school and fears her eldest daughter will turn out the same? Well, instead of teaching her daughter anything in particular (except “don’t sleep around”), it’s always the daughter who teaches the mom: to be less controlling, to be more trusting, etc.

This dynamic is evident with baby (now toddler) Lily, the adopted daughter of gay male partners Mitchell and Cameron. During the first two seasons, Lily acted as convenient catalyst for moments of indulgent quibbling and reconciliation between her dads. When Lily started daycare, Mitchell asked Cameron to tone down his “gayness” in public, but when they realize that gay dads are cool, Mitchell learns his lesson. And when they build Lily a princess playhouse in the backyard, it’s all about Mitchell’s insecurity with manual labor and his relative “manliness.” In the current third season, Lily is played by an older actress who can talk, yet displays of actual parenting still take a backseat to Lily’s dads’ efforts to grow up. Yawn.

Babies on TV serve as props for their parent’s character development. On reality TV, babies are dreams come true and cute fashion accessories (for celebrity moms) or evidence of bad behavior (teen moms). On Dexter, toddler Harrison exists solely as a plot device to anchor daddy Dexter to the non-sociopathic world, and on Up All Night, baby Amy helps her hard-partying parents embrace adulthood. So, who exactly is doing the parenting here? Will the real parents please stand up?

The five white adults--two men and three women--on Raising Hope at the grocery store, surrounding a shopping cart with a baby sitting inside

Enter Raising Hope, a Fox sitcom about Jimmy (Lucas Neff), a twenty-something who discovers he’s father to a motherless child (his baby’s mama was a serial killer who was executed). Jimmy lives with his working class parents (Virginia and Burt) and his senile great-grandmother, so Hope’s upbringing becomes a multi-generational effort. The show is quirky and unconventional, but it doesn’t strut itself as such; its quirkiness is a natural by-product of unique characters and creative plotlines. And since none of these characters are clichéd, baby Hope isn’t fodder for predictable character struggles. None of the scenes point at the parenting, as if we’re supposed to learn something about the adults by how they react to changing a diaper. (The dad’s grossed out but mom plays is cool! That’s so funny.) Instead, Hope’s caretakers make home videos and read and sing and talk to her. They even offer life advice, like when Jimmy tells Hope that “you don’t have to spend money to get somebody the day they’ve always dreamed of,” (in reference to Burt’s recent romantic gesture to Virginia), or when Burt warns, “rich people don’t like to hear no. And since that’s the only word you know, keep it zipped.”

Ironically, the premise is that Hope’s caretakers are negligently irresponsible. Jimmy has no idea what he’s doing, and Virginia and Burt had Jimmy when they were teenagers and still don’t have their life together. Many of the show’s jokes derive from haphazard efforts at parenting. But the lesson isn’t always “What did Jimmy learn from today’s antics with his daughter?” Often, it’s about teaching Hope to live an honest and fulfilling life. The show’s very talented writers must realize that infantile, narcissistic parents aren’t the only route to comedic parenting. Instead, they brought a confident moral compass into the nursery. How very risqué.

by Katherine Don
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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Raising Hope is a good show

Raising Hope is a good show for a lot of reasons. But I find it gratifying when TV shows me characters who, like myself, struggle with money and don't have the greatest stuff. The acknowledgement that we exist is nice. It's one of the reasons I like The Middle as well, despite hating Patricia Heaton.

More analysis needed

First off, I enjoy all of these shows, in spite of their somewhat problematic elements. While I think the author has made some good points here, this analysis feels incomplete. I completely disagree that none of the characters on Raising Hope are cliched. There are constant references to and jokes about Virginia and Burt being poor, uneducated, white trash, which also often serves as the show's explanation for why they had Jimmy when they were teenagers.

Additionally, I don't understand how the author can criticize The Big C for its portrayal of mental illness and not devote any analysis to the ways in which senility and old age are represented in Raising Hope. Again, I think it's a funny show, but I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that Maw Maw is not a caricature of "crazy seniors". Almost anytime we see her (or any other senior citizens) she's either irrational, erratic, violent, or confused and the only explanations given are vague references to "lack of lucidity", Alzheimers, and just being really old. Again, it's good for some laughs, but I know more than one senior that would be pretty insulted by this portrayal.

Mostly what I got from this piece is that the author thinks Raising Hope is somehow legitimately quirky and the other shows named are not.

I completely agree with you

I completely agree with you about Maw Maw. She's a complete caricature and it's pretty insulting. I thought about including her problematic portrayal parenthetically, but elected to just leave it out. However, I don't think Burt and Virginia are stereotypes or caricatures. There's an incredible difference between discussing/making fun of/being proud of/being self-conscious about your own "poor white trash" status, and actually embodying the stereotype of that status. I think Burt and Virginia do the former but not the later, whereas I think that the majority of characters on the other shows that I mentioned are actually walking cliches.

I love Modern Family, and Up

I love Modern Family, and Up All Night. I agree that some of the characters are a little cliche' especially gay dads Mitchell and Cameron, but what about the "stay at home dad" of Up All Night, who is not a cliche' at all. He seems to love staying home with the baby, and the show doesn't constantly reference the "stay at home dad" thing- it just is that way. I'm sure if you look hard enough, we are all one walking cliche or another. I imagine that first time parenting is a learning experience, and the message that having children can teach you a lot about life and yourself doesn't step on my toes.

There's also a nice balance

There's also a nice balance of kids-teaching-parents to parents-teaching-kids on The Middle, a criminally overlooked show with a ton of heart.

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