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'Raising Hope' and 'Running Wilde' have identity issues

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; C04

Whaddya call a half-hour comedy that isn't a sitcom (no studio laughter) and isn't a mockumentary (no single-camera docu-techniques) but also isn't quite as funny as, say, "Arrested Development" (sacred among fans of postmodern TV comedy) or "My Name Is Earl" or even "Cougar Town"?

For now, I want to call this kind of show absurdedy.

"Did you mean absurdity?" Google asks.

No, I most certainly did not. I mean absurdedy: absurd + comedy, a show that is characterized most by the fact that no scene in it lasts longer than 15 seconds and exists only to hammer in the oddest joke it can devise. "Running Wilde," which debuts Tuesday night on Fox, is definitely an absurdedy, giving off the aloof impression that it was all written about five minutes before the cameras rolled.

An absurdedy moves so fast that if you laugh at one joke, you might miss the next. But that's not going to happen a lot here. Revamped pilots of both "Running Wilde" and "Raising Hope" (which precedes "Wilde") are more funny than the originals screened for critics months ago, but even with some casting tweaks and punchier dialogue, neither is destined to show up on too many "favorite new show" lists.

Nevertheless, there are things to like about both. In "Running Wilde," a pampered rich man is infatuated with his childhood love, an eco-activist who lives in a Peruvian rainforest. With that quickly established, the absurdedy gets busy with its incessant layering of joke on top of joke on top of joke, until absurdity overwhelms the absurdedy. (Do you follow that?)

"Arrested Development" alum Will Arnett, who is indeed a gifted funnyman, is stuck trying to lift "Running Wilde" up out of the jungle muck. As the impossibly rich oil scion Steve Wilde, Arnett's lampooning confidence is a welcome jab at the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.

Driven to jealousy by his equally wealthy neighbor, Fa'ad (a quasi-Arab played by British actor Peter Serafinowicz), who has just returned from Dubai with his new tiny horse, Steve rushes out to purchase his own tiny horse, to replace the gallant steed he rides on his vast country estate. In this cocoon of wealth, his every whim is catered to by watchful Mr. Lunt (Robert Michael Morris, whom I hope each and every one you remember as Mickey the hairdresser from "The Comeback") and loyal Migo (Mel Rodriguez).

To feel better about himself, Steve awards a humanitarian prize -- to himself. He shows up drunk to the ceremony and there she is, his childhood love, Emily Kadubic (Keri Russell, who's decided to give comedy a whirl).

Emily has traveled from the Peruvian rainforest, where she's been studying a tribe that is isolated from the rest of the world. She's here to plead with Steve to call off the oil drilling that threatens the tribe's land.

All of this is being narrated by Emily's preteen daughter Puddle (Stefania Owen, who turns out to be the show's lone highlight), who is sick of the jungle and conspires to stay in America. She enlists Steve in her scheme, which is fine, because he's still in love with Emily, who agrees to stick around, so Puddle can know about life in modern civilization.

Whatever hopes "Arrested Development" fans may have held for a new Will Arnett series begin to dissipate by Episode 2 -- even with another "Development" funnyman, David Cross, on board as Emily's annoying eco-terrorist boyfriend. This tiny horsey has no giddyap, but there's still a chuckle or two. Example?

Him: "Admit it, you find my wealth to be emasculating."

She: "I am not a man."

Him: "Then shave your legs, sir."

'Raising Hope'

I'm slightly more taken with Fox's sweeter absurdedy, "Raising Hope," though I still mourn the original title: "Keep Hope Alive."

The premise is about as newfangled as the Diaper Genie: Jimmy Chance (Lucas Neff) is a young man who works for his father's lawn and pool service. He lives at home with his parents (Garret Dillahunt and the incomparable and suddenly everywhere Martha Plimpton) and his dementia-afflicted great-grandmother, Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman, doing her bonkers old granny sexpot shtick).

Jimmy has a fling with a suspicious-but-hot babe (Bijou Phillips, in a cameo), who, it turns out, is wanted for murdering her former boyfriends. After she goes to prison, Jimmy learns she is carrying his baby, and she's on death row. "They'll never [execute me] if I have a baby," she proudly announces.

Well, cut to the next scene, as Jimmy and baby Princess Beyonce (her given name) watch from the witness room as the hot babe is fried in the electric chair.

Jimmy brings Princess Beyonce home to his less-than-ideal living situation, where his parents are reminded how hard life was when Jimmy was born, when they were just teenagers. Which explains why Plimpton, at 38, finds herself playing a new grandmother -- and frankly, making this show worth watching, especially once her heart melts and she lulls the baby to sleep by singing that ancient lullaby, "Danny's Song" by Loggins & Messina.

Princess Beyonce, who is awfully precious, gets a new name: Hope. The family decides to give it a go, hoping against hope that Maw Maw's episodes of lucidity ("What are all you people doing living in my house? I want you out," etc.) are few and far between and that some day, Jimmy can change a diaper without throwing up all over his baby.

Raising Hope

(30 minutes) debuts Tuesday at 9 p.m.;

Running Wilde (30 minutes) follows at 9:30 p.m., both on Fox.

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