The most complicated aspect of watching ABC’s new sitcom Hope & Faith, starring Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford, will be keeping the names straight. Kelly plays Faith; Faith plays Hope. That’s not terribly difficult to remember, and that’s the point. ABC’s Friday night sitcoms have never been challenging.
Popular throughout most of the ‘90s, this lineup never meant to change the face of tv, but to provide family entertainment, namely, slapstick humor, and a guaranteed “Awwww” moment during which the moral of the episode is revealed. Shows such as Family Matters, Full House, and Step by Step all featured strong families who supported one another through thick and thin.
All this can be found in Hope & Faith, and you get Kelly Ripa, too. The primary promotional point for the new series, Ripa is up there with J. Lo and Prince William when it comes to tabloid fodder, and she has a solid fan base, built up from her 12 years on All My Children and her two years as Regis Philbin’s co-host on Live with Regis and Kelly. Recently written off AMC, Ripa now turns her attention to primetime, playing a soap star who has been recently written off her soap.
The premiere episode finds Faith (the character) already killed off from The Sacred and the Sinful, the soap opera that earned her an Emmy. Financially irresponsible, Faith finds herself unemployed and broke for the first time in years. As a result, she’s forced to move in with her suburban sister, Hope, Hope’s husband Charley (Ted McGinley), and the couple’s three children, Hayley (Macey Cruthird), Sidney (Nicole Paggi), and Justin (Jansen Panettiere). Always the responsible one, Hope finds her the comfortable routine disrupted by having a diva in the house.
As the show unfolds, 15-year-old Hayley complains to her unsympathetic mother that she has no “cool” school clothes, so Aunt Faith decides to take her shopping. Carelessly, she does so during the middle of the school day, which means Hayley misses her English class and almost gets suspended from school. Hope is understandably furious with both her daughter and her sister, and agrees with the principal that being suspended from the Homecoming Dance is an appropriate punishment. Having a teenager’s mentality herself, Faith thinks this is too harsh and uses her celebrity and sex appeal to convince the principal to allow Hayley to host a bake sale for charity instead.
When Hope puts her foot down, and insists she’ll do the baking, Faith gives baking her best shot with (surprise) disastrous results. The ensuing sibling argument climaxes when Hope accidentally squirts Faith in the face with mustard, leading to the much-hyped food fight that has become the center of the series’ ad campaign (this being the obligatory slapstick).
During the aunt and niece’s predictable late-night chat, Faith ends up defending her sister to Hayley, explaining that her mom was really cool when they were younger and that Hope is a great mom. Surprise again: Hope overhears the entire conversation, and bakes all the goods they will need for the sale while everyone else is sleeping. The next morning, Hope goes one step further, telling her daughter that she and Faith baked the goods together, and is rewarded for her lie with a hearty “I love you” and a big hug from her daughter (the “awwww” moment). Harmony is restored to the house. Until next week’s episode.
As I watched this first episode, I realized how perfectly it fit into the formula of almost every episode of every ABC sitcom on Friday night. I also realized why I never watched these TGIF shows. In their effort to provide family entertainment, these shows commit two major gaffes. First, the humor is dated and simplistic. Called on to defend her own intelligence, Faith declares, “I am not incontinent” (the requisite “physical” humor). Or consider the following exchange between Hope and Charley regarding Faith:
Hope: Don’t call my sister an idiot.
Charley: Why not? You do it all the time.
Hope: That’s different. She’s family.
This is undoubtedly one of the oldest and most overused jokes in sitcom history, yet it gets a big laugh-track laugh.
The second problem with these formulaic family shows is the absence of any real emotions. Problems arise, arguments ensue, peace is made. No one has to deal with the long-term ramifications of spewing hateful words or betraying the trust of friends and family. A simple “Gee, I’m sorry and I’ve learned a valuable lesson,” and the level of familial endearment that was present before the incident is restored. It’s great that there are families on tv who solve their problems through open and honest communication, but the ease with which the communication comes on these shows bears little resemblance to reality. But if your desired audience is kids and parents alike, provocative examinations of emotions, no matter how humorous, are not going to get you viewers. “Awwww” moments are.
So, for what it is meant to be, a fluffy family sitcom to amuse those who don’t go out on Friday nights, Hope & Faith is all it needs to be. It is not, unfortunately, all that it could be. The series has a pedigreed cast; Ford was hilarious as Corky on Murphy Brown, and McGinley has been working in sitcoms for decades (Happy Days, Married With Children). Along with Ripa, they do the most with the material they’re given, and all three excel in squeaking small chuckles out of the thinnest jokes. McGinley is the most egregiously wasted, as Charley spends most of his onscreen time listening to his wife’s complaints about her sister. Such squandering of talent is underscored by the show’s apparent inability to plumb its ripe premise: a big star disturbing normal family life recalls such comedy classics as The Man Who Came to Dinner. But Hope & Faith settles for mediocrity.
As I watched, I kept imagining how the series would have turned out in someone else’s hands. I fantasized that James Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Susan Harris (The Golden Girls), and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Designing Women) would each have crafted a show that explored—believably—the relationship adjustments the family is undergoing, while highlighting the particular talents of all of the stars. And each would have ensured that the show they created was laugh-out-loud funny. As a general rule, when a show inspires you to contemplate what it would have been like if written or directed by someone else, that doesn’t bode well for its future. Unless, of course, it’s part of the TGIF line-up. In that case, it can be mediocre and run for years. And I have no doubt that Hope & Faith will do just that.