Fox’s Raising Hope and ABC’s The Middle both saw their viewership sink this week, but the shows have a lot more in common than ratings slippage. They both center on charmingly eccentric working-class families; both have a ratings juggernaut in their time slot (NCIS and American Idol, respectively); and both star actresses who tweet with a frequency and freedom that must terrify even stout-hearted PR professionals. In the last couple of weeks, both actresses have pissed off some of their Twitter followers by posting politically charged messages: the liberal Plimpton by supporting women’s reproductive rights and the conservative Heaton by joining in the attacks on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Should we blame the actresses’ outspokenness for their shows’ slide in the ratings?
Plimpton has never shied away from expressing her political views, especially about what she described in Slate as “a culture war over women’s health, specifically, their sexual health.” In the last week alone, she has encouraged followers to protest a New Hampshire bill that falsely claims abortion causes breast cancer, publicized a “blatantly illegal” bill currently being considered in Arizona, and shared the Doonesbury cartoons that many newspapers refused to publish. Her posts have cost Raising Hope at least one viewer: One of her recent tweets drove a man who describes himself as a “small business owner and political junkie” to respond, “loved #raisinghope until reading @MarthaPlimpton. Hard to be entertained by someone that doesnt understand diff between rights and welfare.” But Plimpton was so unconcerned by the defection that she retweeted it.
Heaton attracted attention late last month when she attacked Fluke with tweets such as “Hey G-Town: stop buying toothpaste, soap and shampoo! You’ll save money, and no one will want to sleep with you!” and “Hey G-Town Gal: Plz let us also pay for your Starbucks, movie theater tickets, and your favorite hot wings combo deal at KFC! Anything else?” Heaton later deleted the tweets (they’re archived here), and tweeted an apology to Fluke for her mean-spiritedness, explaining, “Wasn't being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don't like you being dissed -so sorry.”
The two actresses are as different as their politics. Plimpton is literally a child of Broadway: Her parents, Shelley Plimpton and Keith Carradine, were playing hippies in the original Broadway production of Hair when she was born. Her Twitter avatar shows her in an unflattering fat suit, and her bio reads, “I put dead people’s hair on my head and talk loudly in front of strangers for money.” Heaton was raised a devout Roman Catholic in Ohio, where her father was a sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.* Her avatar is a glamour shot, and her Twitter bio begins: “Actress, Wife and Mother to four incredible boys.” There is no doubt which woman I’d rather hang out with—as a liberal, New York-residing, Broadway fanatic, Plimpton is my people. Heaton’s feed, with its focus on Christianity and family, isn’t one I’d typically follow. But I watch and like both women’s shows. Raising Hope is so full of human kindness that even the pope would love it; The Middle portrays the problems of the working poor so effectively that liberals should applaud it.
In Raising Hope, Plimpton plays Virginia Chance, a maid who lives with her husband, Burt, the owner of a lawn- and pool-care company; their 23-year-old son, Jimmy; his daughter Hope, whom he fathered after a one-night stand with a serial killer who was executed six months after Hope was born; and Maw Maw, Virginia’s grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. Although everyone works in unglamorous, service-industry jobs and lives in a slightly down-at-heels home, it’s not a realistic show. In fact, Raising Hope is as close as TV comes to a live-action version of The Simpsons. The Chases live in a world where people are always composing and performing songs, where guys woo girls by writing plays and getting local improv groups to stage them, and where Burt does yard work alongside Chinese acrobats. It even features a slow-witted father and a bickering but devoted couple who still have the hots for each other.
When it does make political points, they tend to err on the side of liberalism. The Chances aren’t presented as helpless victims, but the series clearly recognizes that life is a lot easier when you have money to send your kids to a decent day-care center or when you have health insurance. And Raising Hope can be downright subversive when it comes to acknowledging the opportunities that are denied to many Americans. In a recent episode, Virginia was granted three wishes by her town’s mayor (she’d saved the mayor from public humiliation), and one of her requests was for playground equipment for the “poor people’s park,” where Virginia’s Latina boss’s kids play. When Virginia finally took Hope to use the new swings, she told her, “We’re going to let the Mexican kids go first. They’ve been waiting a while.” On network television, it’s still a political act for a white woman to acknowledge racial privilege.
The Middle is a more straightforward sitcom. Heaton is Frankie Heck, who is raising three goofy kids in Orson, Ind., with her husband, Mike. Frankie and Mike both work hard (he manages a quarry; she’s been working at a car lot since the dental office she managed closed), but they’re constantly short of money and too worn out to give their kids the attention they need. It’s moving to see how the perpetual exhaustion brought on by low-wage jobs makes it impossible for loving parents to be as involved in their kids’ lives as they would like. The Heck kids are 18, 16, and 11, so the show’s political messages are often served up in the guise of life lessons—work hard, be responsible, don’t quit your paper route or you’ll grow up to be a good-for-nothing. These messages are conservative with a small-C.
It’s possible that both series lost viewers this week because of Plimpton and Heaton’s tweeting, but it would be a shame if that were the case. While Raising Hope and The Middle do reflect the politics of their female leads, neither series is ever as strident as their leading women, and both series, to their great credit, focus on the too often overlooked lives of working-class Americans. Both shows deserve a wider viewership from people across the political spectrum. My nonpartisan hope is that the ratings dip has nothing to do with the politics of the show’s stars, and everything to do with the setting of the sun. It’s also possible this week’s ratings dips were caused by something as banal as the shift to daylight saving time: Millions fewer people are watching television before 9 p.m. since the clocks jumped forward. Once people get over their spring fever, I hope they’ll return to these smart, funny, affecting shows.
Correction, March 19, 2012: This piece originally described Patricia Heaton as a devout Roman Catholic. Although she was raised a Catholic, she now considers herself a Presbyterian. (Return to the corrected sentence.)