'Raising Hope': Portrait of a not-so-perfect family

Lucas Neff plays a single father of a daughter.
Lucas Neff plays a single father of a daughter.
Posted: April 19, 2011

This season, like others before it, network TV has offered up a spate of rom-com half hours featuring affluent, photogenic people navigating love and relationships.

"Raising Hope" is not one of those shows.

"We're the weird kid in class," said "Raising Hope" star Lucas Neff. "We're the kid from the other side of the tracks."

"Raising Hope" certainly has a strange premise: Neff plays Jimmy Chance, a slacker, early-twentysomething who has a one-night stand with a woman he later learns is a serial killer. Their dalliance results in a baby, Hope. Jimmy employs his family - including mom Virginia (Martha Plimpton), dad Burt (Garret Dillahunt) and his dementia-riddled Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) - to help with the parenting.

But Neff thinks the show is broader than its off-kilter beginning. "It's so much more than a guy who has a one-night stand with a serial killer and has a baby. It is the premise, that's the outset of the show, but it goes so much farther with the different relationships," Neff said. He believes he's only ostensibly the main character and that watching a show that is based completely on his character would be far less interesting than watching the ensemble go to work.

Since the show premiered in September, it has certainly evolved to include more of the world that Jimmy lives in.

"Raising Hope" is also one of the few shows on the networks, save for a sitcom like "The Middle," that focuses on a blue-collar family. Shows like ABC's "Modern Family," which is similarly about familial dynamics, feature single-income households in idyllic suburbs. But Virginia cleans houses, Burt is a landscaper, and Jimmy works at a grocery store (albeit partly to score points with the comely and sharp Sabrina, played by Shannon Woodward). "It's easy to see America on TV and movies," said Neff. "It seems homogenous, but it's not."

Case in point: Neff's own family. While the Neffs aren't at all like the Chances, Neff said he's never seen anything at all like his family in a show ("If 'Annie Hall' had kids, that would be my family"). But departing from the perceived norm is important for the television landscape.

Neff praised the writers for working with the actors' strengths and skills to bolster their characters. In a recent episode, for example, Woodward got to play guitar and sing. Neff, on the other hand, is not exactly proud of his incorporated talents.

"I have no skills . . . I do really weird, annoying voices. They found out I do am impression of Gollum ['Lord of the Rings'] and that got worked into the show. That's so embarrassing," Neff said. "In another episode, I actually dress up. In a loincloth. With Gollum makeup." Neff paused to giggle. "I think it's really funny. But it's not a high point for me."

Neff, 25, was performing in his Chicago hometown's theater scene when he answered a call for "Raising Hope" auditions. Neff sent a videotape to executive producer Greg Garcia ("My Name is Earl"), who chose him out of the approximately 550 hopefuls vying for the chance to play Jimmy.

"At that point, anything would have seemed like 'The Godfather,' " Neff said about his initial take on the material. Neff counts himself lucky to be working with a veteran staff on his first big project. "I find it all fascinating," he said. "It's like taking a master's class at a water park. There's a lot of fun rides but I'm learning."

The direction "Raising Hope" has taken allows its characters to revel in their own imperfections. Burt and Virginia are not Ozzie and Harriet. (In a recent episode, Virginia tried to appear skinnier to her archenemy cousin by wrapping her body in clear plastic wrap). And Jimmy is certainly no Ricky Nelson. (Before he had a stroller, he walked Hope around in a shopping cart.)

"God knows I'll never have a day in my life where I'm perfect. I haven't gone 10 minutes without doing something stupid," Neff said.

"I love the fact that they're willing to believe in a family that's not perfect, but there's still love. It's a sort of a goofiness that is unique, but at the same time every family has that goofiness. You don't meet too many normal people."

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