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TELEVISION REVIEW

A coarse, chaotic, and sweet ‘Raising Hope’

Lucas Neff in the Fox sitcom 'Raising Hope.'' Lucas Neff in the Fox sitcom "Raising Hope.'' (Ray Mickshaw)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 21, 2010

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I’ve watched Martha Plimpton over the decades, from “The Goonies’’ and “Running on Empty’’ in the 1980s to her recent TV turns as a slimeball lawyer on “The Good Wife’’ and a clingy decorator on “How to Make It in America.’’ And I’ve always really admired her, but never so much as I do on Fox’s “Raising Hope.’’ Plimpton is the cigarette-smoking backbone of this sweetly raucous new white-trash sitcom from Greg Garcia, the creator of “My Name Is Earl.’’ She’s coarse, cynical, exhausted, and, grudgingly, loving.

“Raising Hope’’ is a lot like “My Name Is Earl,’’ though far from a clone. The single-camera show has a similarly madcap tone, and it also revolves around people — the Chance family — who work menial jobs and don’t have much money. Plimpton’s Virginia is a hotel maid, her husband, Burt (Garret Dillahunt), is a pool cleaner, and their 23-year-old son, Jimmy (Lucas Neff), helps him out. They live together in grandma’s home — they call her Maw Maw, and she’s played by Cloris Leachman — and Neanderthal cousin Mike (Skyler Stone) is also under the same roof, in a tent in the laundry room. They’re a boatload of affectionate chaos, with provider Burt acting more like a big kid than son Jimmy.

As if this weren’t crowded enough, Jimmy unexpectedly brings home his infant daughter, adding yet another level to the multigenerational insanity. He had a one-night-stand with a wanted felon, and, well, long story short, he now has possession of the 6-month-old whom the felon named Princess Beyonce. Virginia is quite displeased about this new addition, to put it mildly. She was 15 when she had Jimmy, and she’s longing to be free of child-rearing. She knows she’s the one who’ll wind up taking care of the baby — even though she’s as poorly equipped to do that as she was at 15 — so she suggests Jimmy drop Princess Beyonce at the fire station.

But in a moment of grace reminiscent of Earl’s awakening in “My Name Is Earl,’’ Jimmy feels that the presence of his baby is offering his family a new chance (as such, her name changes to Hope). And that’s how “Raising Hope’’ expands from a funny portrait of eccentrics — which also includes Jimmy’s new love interest, a supermarket check-out girl with a subversive streak — into something special. While Leachman is at her scary-crazy best, since Maw Maw has lost her memory and kisses her grandson like he’s her late husband, this show has a lot of genuine heart to balance the broad humor. And even better, the warm moments are never pushed in our faces; they remain just below the surface, unarticulated by the inarticulate characters.

Dillahunt is another attraction. Perhaps best known for his textured dramatic work on “Deadwood,’’ and instantly familiar as the bad-guy guest star on any number of TV dramas, he shows great skill with loose comedy. His Burt is immature and mischievous, but also sweetly childlike — watch how he takes such joy in listening to the pronunciation of the name Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He’s not quite as infantile and slow as Randy on “My Name Is Earl,’’ but he’s got the same kind of lovability factor and he and Plimpton make a perfect team. And as Jimmy, the son of adult children, newcomer Neff has a quiet appeal. He delivers amusing moments of panic — I loved the scene in which he and his mother both vomit at the sight of dirty diapers — but he plays the sanest person in the Chance household and the only dreamer in the bunch.

Last fall, the networks delivered an unusual number of strong new series, including “Modern Family,’’ “The Good Wife,’’ and “Glee.’’ There may be a smaller number of top-notch newbies this season, but “Raising Hope,’’ a celebration of parenthood and childhood, of small joys and big struggles, is certainly one of them.

RAISING HOPE

Starring: Lucas Neff, Garret Dillahunt, Martha Plimpton, Cloris Leachman

On: Fox, Channel 25

Time: Tonight, 9-9:30