'Hope & Gloria' renews faith in NBC sitcom crew


NBC's "Hope & Gloria" wants to be "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" for the '90s. And the pilot has enough promise to make you think it could happen.

The sitcom, which premieres at 8:30 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), is about two very different 30-ish women named Hope Richardson (Cynthia Stevenson) and Gloria Utz (Jessica Lundy) who discover they have a lot in common.

Hope is a white-collar, TV talk show producer who sings "Tomorrow" from the play "Annie" when she's feeling blue, and really believes in the words -- even after her husband walks out on her on their 10th anniversary. The term "goodie two-shoes" springs to mind.

Gloria is a divorced, working-class, single mother who's a hairdresser and a realist. She's Rhoda to Hope's Mary.

Tonight's pilot opens in the laundry room of their apartment building with a terrific scene that sets out the differences between the two as they go about this most ordinary of rituals. The differences in their personalities, style, and approaches to life come through as they sort clothes, deposit quarters, borrow machines and move wet laundry around.

Hope obeys 100 unwritten rules of laundry room etiquette; she also has a separate pile labeled "ecru." Gloria, who takes no prisoners in her efforts to get through her wash quickly, watches Hope with mounting incredulity. To her, Hope is from another planet -- one made of white bread and Twinkies.

The humor in the laundry room sequence is not so much in the words as in the characters' gestures and movements. Comedic ballet is probably an overstatement. But it is a delicious five minutes of visual sitcom comedy, choreographed by executive producers Cheri and Bill Steinkellner. Team Steinkellner, as they are known in Hollywood, were executive producers of "Cheers," as well as creators and executive producers for Bob Newhart's "Bob." They are as good as it gets in the world of television comedy.

As good as Hope and Gloria are together, there's even more to like. This is a series with depth.

The cast also includes Enrico Colantoni (from "NYPD Blue") as Louis Utz -- Gloria's ex-husband, a carpet installer. Utz is "Taxi's" Louie De Palma with fewer smarts and more heart. He's a great supporting character.

Hope's boss at the Pittsburgh TV station, Dennis Dupree, is played by Alan Thicke ("Growing Pains"). Dupree is a puffed-up, big-fish-small-pond hack in local TV who is the host of the talk show Hope produces. His concerns are threefold: His image, his hair and his image. Thicke clearly relishes the over-the-top-Ted Baxter role, and has never been close to being this good.

"I kid [pause] because I care," Dupree sanctimoniously tells Hope, as every word of Thicke's body language says this is the most self-absorbed fool you've ever seen.

The first meeting between Dupree and Gloria tonight is a delight. Hope has brought her new friend in to sub for the show's regular hairstylist, who is off for Jewish Arbor Day.

"Gee, Dennis, I just want to say that it's really an honor to do you," Gloria says as she starts to work on Dupree's hair. She goes on to say that it stinks "that Ricki Lake goes right to the top, and you're still stuck doing this doink local show after what, 25, 30 years?"

This is by far the best sitcom of the TV's second season, with moments that will remind you of the great MTM era of the late 1970s. One of those moments comes after Hope's husband walks out. He wrote his goodbye letter on a pad of Post-it notes.

"He always could write real small," Hope says.

Hope tearfully shares the "letter" with Gloria, and all that's left of Hope's marriage ends up sticking to her sweater and pants.

With its spot between "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld," "Hope & Gloria" should become NBC's third hit new series of the year -- along with "E.R." and "Friends." It looks like NBC has just put the last piece in place to make its Thursday night schedule the strongest in all of prime time.

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