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.
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?
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.