Sunday, April 03, 2005

TV Review: Hope & Faith

When people found out we were reviewing ABC's Hope & Faith this week, the general response was, "I can't wait to see how you demolish Kelly Ripa!" Overexposed beyond parody, Ripa's inspired a very strong backlash. We were more than willing to take part in that. Provided it was called for.

Funny thing is, she's actually not all that bad. In terms of physical bits, she's actually quite talented. If she has a failing, it's a lack of nuance when delivering lines. We're not sure if that's a result of the way she sees the character or if it's a reflection of Ripa herself. Near the end of the episode, she had a moment with an actor playing her nephew Justin where she dropped the bear down hard delivery, so we're inclined to think it's how she sees the character.

While that's fine and there's nothing wrong with bearing down hard on a line, sometimes she falls flat where she should sing. Megan Mullally, to offer one example, can vary her voice and delivery to marvelous effect even when bearing down hard on a line. We'd like to see Ripa be as adventurous (fearless?) delivering lines as she is executing physical bits of comedy.

To offer one example, at one point Faith delivers the following, "I found my bliss! And his name is Chris!" Reading that, you can probably add in with your own way to shape those two lines.
Rippa doesn't. Where the little rhyme should sing, it just falls flat.

This doesn't happen everytime, but it does pop up frequently. (And when it does, it brings to mind the delivery of her Live! With Regis & Kelly talk show co-host Regis Philbin.) This is Ripa's first sitcom and she's surprisingly good. She has a natural flair for comedy and she or someone is coming up with marvelous physical business that add to the laughs and enrich the character. Anyone reading this with the hopes of Ripa trash-fest should probably stop because it's not forthcoming. But we would suggest that she work on shaping on her lines.

Which doesn't mean that Hope & Faith is without it's problems. The episode focused on Faith (Ripa) meeting a single father raising his daughter which led Faith to attempt to pass her nephew Justin off as her son. This allowed the actor playing Justin a spotlight and the writers came up with some nice moments for him; however, the fact is the daughters have no personality.

At one point, in their one scene, the eldest was given an exit line that should have prompted laughs because it was condescending (and standard sitcom):

Younger daughter: I'm never getting married.
Eldest daughter: Like you'll have a choice.

Cue canned laughter. But what did that line mean? Was it some sort of, "No one will ever want you!" comment. Was the eldest daughter implying that everyone must get married and the younger daughter can't buck the system? Was this an allusion to sexuality and same sex marriage? We have no idea. And we doubt the actress delivering the line did as well. (We're guessing it's the first possibility -- in which case, the eldest daughter could have gotten more laughs and made the line clear by doing a slow up and down look at her sister.)

Either give the two characters personalities or keep them confined to one scene an episode. Faith Ford (who plays Hope, we know, it's confusing) says at one point, "The girls are upstairs." That's a line which should be repeated over and over each episode unless the writers can figure out what makes the daughters unique.

In this episode, they also didn't seem too keen on Faith Ford's character. Hope & Faith are really the key to this show and treating Faith Ford's Hope as a supporting character (we're guessing due to the "guest star" -- more on that in a bit) really does the show a disservice since Ford's an accomplished comedian in her own right and provides several laughs in her supporting scenes in this episode. (She and Ripa also play off of each other well.)

But watching Ford's scene with Ted McGinley (who plays her husband Charlie), we wondered something else: is something wrong health wise with McGinley? Outside of film noir, we're having a hard time remembering when we've seen so many shadows playing across a face.
Dark lighting is the key to all of the scenes McGinley is in (which also make up all but one scene Ford appears in) -- whether they take place in the kitchen, the living room or while eating out. McGinley and Ford being sitcom veterans (Murphy Brown & Norm for Ford, Happy Days & Married With Children for McGinley), we don't think they're having trouble hitting their marks.

When the kitchen wall in the frame behind McGinley is better lit than McGinley's face, we have to wonder what's going on?

McGinley's playing a variation of the good natured bufoon he's made his trademark. Playing off of Ripa & Ford, it seems far less dated than you might expect. But the sitcom's a little more than you might expect as well. While it can too often fall into the standard sitcom traps and traditions, it can also pull off a few unexpected tricks.

Let's address one standard sitcom traps first. The episode revolves around a non-regular character and they go for "must see" casting -- if anyone's feeling the must see jones for Nick Lachey. While television has long tossed out various bimbos of questionable talent as guest stars, they've usually shied away from turning entire episodes over to them. Think of the parade of "lovelies" who waltzed through the front door (if not Jack Tripper's bedroom door) on Three's Company. So a himbo or two is long overdue but turning the episode over to Lachey was a mistake. At his best, he comes off like watered down Rob Estes. While we having no problem with full on Estes, it should be noted the networks haven't been falling over themselves to cast Estes in any series lately so Lachey's pale imitation/homage strikes us as unneeded when the real Estes could have easily been cast.

Far more often, Lachey comes off at his worst which means he mistakes "music video acting" for acting. Dripping with the sincerity required to woo the preteen listener, he nearly buries each scene. And, it needs to be said, in this medium that relies on microphones, he needs to work on projection because his near whisper was too often hard to hear.

Sporting some dark fuzz that appears to be an attempt at a mustache, Lachey is repeatedly upstaged. Not just by the ridiculously weak hair growth, but also by Ripa and the young actress playing his daughter. (Ripa refers to the daughter as a "tramp in training wheels.")

Lachey plays Lachey. If you've seen MTV's Newlyweds, you've seen everything Nick Lachey has to offer at this point. His "acting method" consists of one long eye roll and sigh. If Lachey is attempting to make some statement about masculinity under attack (one we wouldn't buy, but whatever) he'll need to do so with a little less lackluster and a lot more passion.

While never a music star (check the sales figures), he did make the scene as a glossy pin up. If that's all he has to offer, we'll take comfort in the fact that he's of the age that previous pin ups (Bobby Sherman, David Cassidy, El DeBarge, et al) began their long, slow fade. Barring some undiscovered talent, may he travel the same road -- quickly. And should Hope & Faith provide more himbos in the future, let's hope they refrain from turning the show over to them.

But let's talk about what's unique about the show. The pacing is swift, the commercial breaks come in unexpected moments and Ripa's Faith is, for the sitcom world, a major trangression.
At one point, Ripa's Faith is attempting to force her nephew to accompany her on a date (he doesn't want to be around Lachey's daughter). We've seen this scene before, no question. Verbal bribes and threats can be done humorously, but they're hardly unexpected to anyone who's logged a few TV hours.

So we were confused but not surprised, when Ripa threatened Justin with "Fine, then I'll have to tell your mother about the lamp your broke" if he didn't accompany her on the date. Vintage sitcom and we could see Mona (among others) doing the same on Who's the Boss, the empty bluff aimed at a child. Old trick. Right?

Like Justin, we were, however, wondering what lamp? We weren't all that surprised to see Ripa pick up a lamp. Just when we thought, "Okay, we get it, she's bluffing him to get him to along on the date," Ripa hurled the lamp to the floor.

Her sister's living room lamp. Smashed. We weren't expecting that. As she then picked up a vase and asked, "Now are you going to go get dressed or is this crazy rampage you're on going to continue?" we realized we were seeing a little more than the usual ha-ha-bluff-the-kids. It was as though The Hand That Rocks the Cradle's Peyton had moved into her sister's house.

The character of Faith can get away with this over the top behavior partly due to the fact that she's supposed to be a former over-the-top soap opera actress. But it's also worth noting that Ripa excels at physical comedy. Even her walk (which suggest Bette Midler but is still all Ripa's own) is comic. And as you watch, you keep waiting to see what this outrageously dressed, over the top character will do next?

The episode we watched wasn't without it's problems: Lachey's weak attempts at acting, sidelining Faith Ford's Hope for much of the episode, the daughters not fleshed out . . . But
going in, we were expecting that we'd be able to deliver the review that so many people were expecting, a devastating put down of Kelly Ripa's acting. We'd suggest that she work on utilizing her voice because her delivery falls flat in spots, but otherwise, we were hugely impressed with Ripa and, honestly, surprised. Yes, the various product endorsements commericals were irritating and, yes, we'd can go our entire life without watching Live! With Regis & Anyone. But if that's what you're basing your opinion of Ripa on, we'd suggest you check out Hope & Faith because it's got a lot to offer and Ripa's far more talented than the water and hair product commercials suggest.
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