8 Simple Rules (2002-2005) was an above-average sitcom marked by tragedy. On September 11, 2003 - coincidentally the second anniversary of 9/11 - the popular veteran star of the show, John Ritter, fell ill during rehearsals that afternoon. Later that evening he was dead, having suffered a catastrophic aortic dissection. He was 54.
Ritter had completed just three second-season episodes. The show was never a big hit - in its first year it ranked 43rd out of 149 rated primetime shows - and there was talk of scrapping the series then and there, but the decision was made to soldier on, to have Ritter's character die, too, and to incorporate the ongoing grief felt among cast members and the crew into the show's first wave of new scripts.
Though shows here and there have drawn parallels between the sudden death of a cast member with the character they played, never had this been done to the extent 8 Simple Rules did. The results were almost unique, and the writing and performances unusually good for normally innocuous ABC "TGIF" fare. Later in the season, the show's producers unwisely tried to fill Ritter's pole position with a badly cast, one-trick pony of a comedian. But for a while there, 8 Simple Rules made for compelling, even insightful comedy-drama.
The series, actually 8 Simple Rules...for Dating My Teenage Daughter (shortened only after Ritter's last appearances), was based on humorist W. Bruce Cameron's book of the same name, and starred Ritter as a suburban Detroit-based newspaper columnist, Paul Hennessy. Prior to Ritter's death, the show was primarily concerned with the familial relationships between Paul and his wife, Cate (Katey Sagal), a nurse, and their three teenage children: popular but scatterbrained and self-involved blonde Bridget (Kaley Cuoco), introspective younger sister Kerry (Amy Davidson), who takes after her creatively-inclined father, and youngest sibling Rory (Martin Spanjers), a mischievous boy hitting puberty.
The show was like Leave it to Beaver in the best sense. Like that iconic '50s-early-'60s series, 8 Simple Rules humorously acknowledged little truths about the way parents and their teenage children interact, their conflicts, teenage angst and parental paranoia. Like Ward and June Cleaver, Paul and Cate often misinterpret their children's problems and needs, and frequently make mistakes themselves, but are basically loving and actively-involved parents trying to do the sensible thing. Bridget, Kerry, and Rory are occasionally reckless, selfish, and foolish, but for the most part decent kids who ultimately listen to and learn from their parents - just as the parents listen and learn from them. As a comedy, the show works best when like Leave it to Beaver and The Dick Van Dyke Show (to name two) adapts real-life incidents and observations into sitcom storylines.
Ritter's death threw everything asunder. By all accounts he was extremely well-liked and obviously talented, though his best-known success, the long-running Three's Company, was really beneath his abilities as an actor-comedian. The surviving cast is obviously channeling their shock and grief through their characters when, at the beginning of the fourth second-season episode, "Goodbye," offscreen Paul drops dead while on a morning errand to the corner store - and the very core of the Hennessey family abruptly is no more.*
Subsequent shows grapple with their varied stages of grief, and some of the practical and emotional issues facing the survivors. In "No Right Way," tension around the house is palpable when each member of the family seems to be coping with Paul's death in a different way and at a different pace, causing everyone to be angry at everyone else. In "What Dad Would Want," Rory feels pressured to try out for the basketball team only out of a nagging sense of obligation, to honor his father's memory. In various episodes Cate tries to be upbeat around the house, not wanting to expose the kids to her pain, leaving her with no one to turn to, and in another show she's reluctant to go through her husband's desk and sleep in their bed for fear that such activities will awaken painful memories. When Cate's divorced parents (wonderfully played by Suzanne Pleshette and James Garner) come to help out, Cate's mom overwhelms the grieving widow with "God's will" talk, while her father is more an additional burden than a leg up.
Pleshette left the show after a few guest appearances - possibly because her own last years were full of tragedy (the death of numerous friends and two husbands, and a lengthy battle with cancer) - but Garner stayed with the show until the end. Indeed the series was back on track by mid-season - but then somebody made the really dumb decision to cast the Saturday Night Live/Just Shoot Me! comedian David Spade as "Cate's hopelessly irresponsible nephew, C.J." (as the liner notes describe him).
In a show increasingly rooted in authentic family relationship stories, teleplays that moved the series more into the realm of "dramedy" than standard sitcom fare, Spade's nephew was about as necessary as the addition of "Cousin Olivier" to The Brady Bunch. Partly because the character of C.J. is so dominated by Spade's established - and to my tastes, grating - screen persona, and partly because he's written as a standard "wacky" sitcom character, he seems totally disconnected from 8 Simple Rules's universe, and only serves to jerk the entire show back into the banal. It's a classic case of Jumping the Shark.
Video & Audio
8 Simple Rules - The Complete Second Season is presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen. The transfers are very good, typical of contemporary three-camera sitcoms.
The episodes are short at 21 1/2 minutes apiece (with "Goodbye" extended to 43 minutes) but don't appear uncut or altered in any way. The three Ritter shows originally aired with introductions by Sagal; these introductions are not included here. The 2.0 stereo audio is fine, also representative of this type of show and its era. There are no subtitles, alternate audio options, and no Extra Features, though a single-page, double-sided episode list insert offers okay synopses.
Prior to star John Ritter's death, 8 Simple Rules was, if not great comedy, then certainly decent enough with little nuggets of insightful humor about the ways parents and teenage children interact. In response to his untimely demise, the show's creators guided the series into new, almost uncharted waters with taste and intelligence, at least until somebody made that fatal mistake in hiring Spade. Overall though, 8 Simple Rules is Recommended.
* Sergei Hasenecz adds, "I think you should mention that for Katey Sagal, this was the second death she experienced in the course of a sit-com. She had become pregnant during the series Married...with Children, and the writers of that show included her pregnancy. Tragically, her child was stillborn. In the TV series, Peg Bundy's pregnancy was explained as a dream (or rather, as Al Bundy's nightmare).
"And as the 8 Simple Rules writers would later do, Married...with Children then made the mistake of adding an obnoxious character, Seven (child of Peg's cousins), who proved to be so unpopular with viewers that he was dropped from the show."
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