When a television show is good, it is often because the creator of the show pours a large part of his or herself into it, resulting in a final product that feels personal, even though it is aimed at millions of strangers all around the world. It doesn't have to be a story ripped from the memory bank of that creator but one where the passion and voice is unique enough to shine through nonetheless-- and no matter what obstacles (competitive time slots, underwhelming ratings, lack of marketing) are thrown at it. FOX' Raising Hope, from comedy guru Greg Garcia was one such example. Its humor and its heart were always equally balanced, derived from Garcia's sensibility. Needless to say, when we heard he was stepping down as showrunner from this baby he created for its fourth season, we were worried. We had seen similar instances (cough, NBC's Community) take a deep, dark dive after the creator/showrunner/heart/soul/brain was no longer a part of the show. Admittedly we were prepared to see it again here. But thankfully promoting series executive producer Mike Mariano to the hot seat has paid off immediately from his first episode, the fourth season premiere.
Mariano has been with the show and worked alongside Garcia long enough to pick up on the subtle formula of this quirky comedy. Certainly much less intrusive that the over the top punchlines, puns, and slapstick of a more traditional sitcom, Raising Hope relies on some key elements to keep it funny and keep it functioning week after week. The fourth season premiere includes all of them-- from infusing flashbacks featuring wig-clad characters to clarify their modern day memories, to having a key family member learn something about his or herself, to having the whole family gather together to either get one of them out of a jam, help one of them succeed, or generally celebrate a life event or milestone. In the case of "Deja Vu Man," it is the latter, as a mysterious Natesville resident (guest star Jeffrey Tambor) pops back up in the Chance's lives, only for Burt (Garret Dillahunt), Virginia (Martha Plimpton), and Jimmy (Lucas Neff) to all realize they have had random encounters with him through the years. When they catch Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman) in a surprisingly lucid moment, they learn the truth: that this man is actually Virginia's biological father, who Virginia thought was dead but who really just defected from her life when she was a baby.
What follows is a Raising Hope-traditional tale of trying to reconnect only to realize that things still aren't exactly what they seem. Instead of the typical "Jimmy gets shocked with a truth about his childhood," it is Virginia who is thrust front and center of this story, and it is a chance to see from where she got some of her own quirks and specialness. This is really the only difference you may notice for this episode of Raising Hope in regards to tone or format. There are still callbacks for diehard fans, including yet another themed family portrait adventure, and there is also yet another revelation that at the end of the day (and the episode) the only family members the Chances really need are each other. There is a reason these are the ones that have chosen to stick together and share the same house while others have run off or been forced to have their deaths faked by Maw Maw.
And just in case you haven't been following along for the previous three seasons, Mariano marks his regime change by offering a musical recap moment at the top of the episode. In the story it serves to remind a not-so lucid Maw Maw who everybody in her house is, but in the television world, it also works to catch anyone up who may be newly jumping onto this show now. He pays homage to everything that has come before his season with quick highlights that immediately remind long-time viewers just what makes this show bring a smile to their faces week after week. It is as if he's reassuring everyone that he gets it, he loves it, and he's not going to tear it down, change it, or otherwise ruin it.
In the words of Trace Garcia (in the company logo card that follows this premiere episode), it is nice work, Mike!
Raising Hope returns to FOX on November 8 2013 at 9 p.m.
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