How Far is Too Far? Raising Hope’s Troublesome Finale and Reality in Sitcoms
The Fox sitcom Raising Hope has become one of the most critically acclaimed comedies on television over the course of the past two seasons. The show centers on Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff), a 23-year-old grocery clerk who still lives at home with his parents and senile grandmother. One night Jimmy has a one-night stand with a girl named Lucy (Bijou Phillips) and discovers the following morning that she is a serial killer who murders her boyfriends. The Chance family captures her and she goes to prison, but eight months later they find out that Jimmy’s one night with her resulted in a pregnancy. Lucy gives birth and then is executed, after which the daughter (who Lucy had named Princess Beyonce, but the Chances rename Hope) comes to live with the family. It’s a high-concept premise for a sitcom, and sets the ground for a series where anything can and happen.
But in the show’s two-part second season finale, which aired on April 10th and 17th of this year, the series presented its audience with its wildest flight of fancy yet—Lucy returned from the dead, having miraculously survived her execution. And not only was Lucy still alive, she was fighting for custody of Hope. She takes the Chance family to court, in front of a jury that never learns of her history as a serial murderer, and wins. Even for a series built on broad comedic twists, this was a step too far. Many fans were baffled, and critics were not kind.
High-concept comedies like Raising Hope walk a thin line. They need to maintain their edginess by creating ever crazier plots for their characters to react to, but never allow the audience time or reason to question the underlying reality of each situation. If a series has established itself as a broad comedy from the beginning, how do you define its boundaries? Is there a line over which the basic reality of the series can no longer be accepted, and how do you know when it’s been crossed?
NBC’s Community is a similarly high-concept series. The signature episodes of the series have delved into the playful psyche of the show’s resident film student and pop-culture obsessive Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi). Abed is a social misfit who disengages with reality in favor of vivid fantasies, and his friends in the Greendale study group follow after him into all-out paintball wars and even a Rankin-Bass style claymation Christmas special. The audience is able to accept these scenarios due to the special attention the writers pay to making sure they stay grounded in reality. In the Christmas episode only Abed can see everything as a claymation version of reality. The episode could work just as well with the live actors playing the parts, but it’s more fun to see the characters portrayed as stop-motion animated figures.
But sometimes even Community goes too far for some fans. Many cried foul at the second season’s Halloween episode, “Epidemiology”, in which tainted army surplus food kits cause a virus to spread through Greendale that behaves remarkably like a zombie invasion. It’s definitely a broad plot, and one that wouldn’t stand up to much scrutiny, but “Epidemiology” is such a quick-moving, funny episode that most fans forgave the ridiculous plot because they were so entertained. That’s an important part of the formula. A sitcom’s chief duty to its audience is to be funny, and breaking the rules of the show only pays off when the audience is laughing too hard to notice the transgression.
The series finale of Newhart ended with series star Bob Newhart waking up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife on his previous TV series The Bob Newhart Show. The gag revealed the entire eight-season history of Newhart to be nothing more than a dream, wiping all of Newhart’s characters out of existence. The audience forgave that nullification because the callback was so unexpected and brilliantly executed. The episode is still considered one of the greatest series finales in television history.
The ABC sitcom Roseanne is an infamous example of a beloved series that lost a large chunk of its audience with a bizarre plot twist. For most of the show’s highly-rated and critically acclaimed run it focused on the Connors, a lower middle class family struggling to survive in suburban Illinois. In the final season the family won a $108 million jackpot in the lottery, and the series abruptly shifted focus. Instead of worrying where the next mortgage payment was going to come from the Connor family fought with TV producers and dined with royalty. Critics and fans alike abandoned the series. The new direction had completely undermined what had been so fresh, and then so familiar, about the show.
In a sense, that familiarity is the real issue. Sitcoms function on an engine of the familiar. A show’s audience returns to it because they enjoy the presence of either the characters or the comedic tone. When a show changes so abruptly, as Roseanne did, the audience can no longer be sure they’re watching the same series. If a series allows (or demands) its audience to reevaluate the kind of show it is, it runs the risk that they may decide that it’s not a show they care for anymore.
That brings us back to Raising Hope, and why their twist tread on such dangerous ground. No fan of Raising Hope would expect it to be exactly true to life—this is a series where, only a few episodes before the finale, the elderly Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) was able to completely slaughter and process a pig carcass—but the series also expects us to care for its characters, and a certain amount of reality goes along with that request.
There’s a level of trust implicit in the relationship of a show to its fans. A series provides a template early on and promises that’s as far as they will go. When a show so basically violates that contract, as Roseanne did, then much of what fans love about the show can be wiped out. Raising Hope has to solidify that contract next season or risk the same fate.