Loud, obvious, and crass, ”Hope & Faith” is one of this season’s more fascinating new sitcoms. It takes two familiar faces – Kelly Ripa, the soap opera star who unsettles Regis Philbin with her quick-wittedness far more than Kathie Lee Gifford ever did with her grating mawkishness, and Faith Ford, the ”Murphy Brown” veteran who seemed doomed to be known only as a Murphy Brown veteran – and makes them entirely plausible sisters. Well, ”plausible” in the sitcom sense: They both have heart-shaped faces surmounted by teased, (enhanced) blond, and poufed-up hair. In close-ups, we see that these actresses also share attractive age lines (I don’t intend sarcasm or sexism here; a well-placed wrinkle is alluring). In full-length shots, their slim, toned frames approach genetic matchups. When they screech – which is what these latter-day Laverne and Shirleys do a lot of, to wrench laughs from meager punchlines – even their vocal timbres are similar.
All of which wouldn’t matter if the show’s premise didn’t work, but it does. Hope (Ford) is a married-with-three-kids Ohio housewife; Faith (Ripa) is a single actress recently fired from her soap opera role who seeks comfort from this Tinseltown humiliation by moving in with her suburban sis. Sure, the idea is bunk – no daytime-Emmy-winning actress (”I should have won two: I played twins!”) is going to slink back home to the Midwest, right? – but the writers suggest that Faith has squandered her 10-year TV plunder. Given what an impulsive, madcap gal she is, why not go along for that narrative ride – especially since the setup enables Ripa’s Faith to move in. Clad in minidresses and white go-go boots (thanks to ”Sex and the City” costumer Patricia Field), she becomes a liberating force field of energy for a dowdy family tightly controlled by her self-described ”uptight fuddy-duddy” sister. The clan also includes familiar TV face Ted McGinley (hired after the scrapped pilot was shot), who is completely convincing as easygoing hubby Charley. Luckily, his character seems to enjoy Hope’s sensible companionship (and her slacks and flats) – a crucial element, since if it looked for an instant as though Charley preferred the hotsy Hollywood Faith, the show would disintegrate immediately into ewww ickiness.
Indeed, despite numerous sitcom-standard sex jokes (Faith, on her youthful experience competing on Star Search: ”That Ed McMahon sure is handsy”), there is a fundamental air of innocence that enables ”Hope & Faith” to get away with such tired setups as the sisters being wacky at an open-coffin funeral or hiding a nearly undressed young man from Charley in a living-room cabinet. (The studly punk, you see, was invited over by Faith for the benefit of eldest daughter Sydney, played by Nicole Paggi, but he thinks he’s there for a nooner with the soap diva. Ah, youth!)
There’s a lot of slapstick in ”H&F” – the pilot culminated in a pretty hilarious, sisterly food fight – and as I’ve suggested, no plotline that hasn’t been done by ”The Patty Duke Show.” But there’s pleasure to be taken in seeing these familiar tropes executed with bright-eyed energy, which both Ford, and especially Ripa, possess in abundance. Ripa, an alum of ”All My Children,” is playing, of course, a heightened – or maybe the better word is compressed – version of herself, a more brittle, desperate variation on the chatty persona she presents each morning on ”Live With Regis and Kelly.” (Philbin’s previous cohost never could have pulled this off – as Kathie Lee proved in her grotesque 2001 TV-movie stab at self-parody, ”Spinning Out of Control.”) The framework of ”Hope & Faith” is assiduously standard; each episode even tends to end with silly Faith learning a little life lesson (e.g., she should act her age – a begrudged 33 – because she is, after all, ”another parent” to the kids in the household). But the show is funny anyway, due to Ripa and Ford’s go-for-broke foolishness, which is a subtext for the way both actresses desperately want to worm their way into fresh prime-time stardom.
And by the way, if you wonder how long H&F can stretch out the ex-soap-star-in-a-small-town idea, I’m sure I’m not giving the writing staff ideas when I suggest the obvious: Along about the year the series is limping its way toward the gold mine that is syndication, it’ll be time for Ripa’s Faith to find a cranky local guy and start cohosting Good Morning, Ohio, don’tcha think? B