"Rules of Engagement" was a mid-season replacement last season, running seven episodes, all of which seemed a bit spaced out as the series seemed to be there one week, gone the next, back the week after. The show certainly had a lot going for it: it marked the return to TV for both David Spade (Spade's former "SNL" co-star Adam Sandler's production company, Happy Madison, is one of the production companies involved) and Patrick Warburton. Additionally, behind-the-scenes talent includes "Seinfeld" writer/producers Carol Leifer and Andy Ackerman.
The series stars Warburton and Megyn Price (the very funny actress from "Grounded for Life") as Jeff and Audrey, a couple who's been married for a while and has reached the level of "been there, done or seen that." They have a comfortable relationship, but it's not without the occasional disagreements. There's also Adam (Oliver Hudson) and Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich), a younger couple who who have just gotten married and are still ironing out the occasional issue that arises in their relationship. Hovering around them all is Russell (Spade), a single guy who wants to stay that way.
The first season of the series was generic, if not horrifically so. It was disappointing, given that this was a series with a lot of talent and a great cast. However, in one of the most surprising turnarounds in recent television history, "Rules of Engagement" has flipped the script and gone from a forgettable series to one of the more consistently funny and under-appreciated sitcoms around.
Oddly enough, the smartest thing the series did was make Hudson's character a complete idiot (and the character's stupidity has seemingly been dialed up in the last couple of seasons): Hudson is - no offense - far more skilled (fantastic, even) at playing stupid and his delivery is vastly improved starting in the second and third seasons (making a home run out of lines like: "I am so sorry I got distracted...damn you, tiny cakes!")
The other benefit to Hudson's character becoming amusingly dumbed-down is that it has woken-up Kajlich, who suddenly has something to bounce lines off of, whereas she really had little to do earlier in the show's run. Suddenly, a terrific cast that had the potential for greatness started to click.
As for the other positive aspects of the series, Spade and Warburton are as perfect together as they were when they co-starred in "Emperor's New Groove". Warburton's ultra-deadpan style manages to mix with Spade's hyperactive sarcasm superbly once again. The best example of this is in this season's opener, "Russell's Secret", where Spade and Warburton get into a hysterical argument over theatre, then are scolded by Audrey for acting like bratty children. They agree they could improve their manners...until they find a new target a minute later: Adam learning to dance with his male instructor. Another classic Spade moment comes at the end of "Old Timer's Day", as he leaps out of the stands at a baseball field to go after a blonde, only to botch the landing in classic fashion (while the music from "The Natural" plays in the background.)
Pryce is another bonus, as she has good chemistry with Warburton and, once again, offers another funny performance here. Warburton and Price also benefit from the show's improved writing - especially Warburton, whose laid-back style gets quite a bit closer to the level (although, not surprisingly, doesn't beat it) of his hysterical work on "Seinfeld".) Price and Warburton also start to really connect and feel more like a real couple.
The third season also sees the rise of Timmy (Adhir Kalyan), Russell's prim and proper assistant, who barely tolerates his boss - alternating between reluctantly assisting him and lightly sabotaging him. The addition of a supporting character like this could have resulted in failure, but Kalyan is terrific in the role and plays off Spade perfectly. The character has been a welcome addition to the series and has gotten a larger role as the series has rolled on.
Finally, not sure if the show changed the writing staff or not, but the show's writing - while not classic - has seen a night/day improvement, with "Russell's Secret" (Russell is a secret fan of musicals), "Dad's Visit" (Jeff's father - guest star Brian Dennehy - visits and sues them when he gets a minor injury in their apartment) and the "Seinfeld"-esque "The Challenge".
Is "Rules" up to the level of "Seinfeld" or the like? No, certainly not - but it's a series that has made a surprising amount of improvement over a few seasons, going from something forgettable to a series that is consistently (and sometimes deeply) funny.
• Season 3
23 3-01 301 02/Mar/09 Russell's Secret
24 3-02 302 09/Mar/09 Voluntary Commitment
25 3-03 303 16/Mar/09 Jeff's New Friend
26 3-04 304 23/Mar/09 Dad's Visit
27 3-05 305 30/Mar/09 Lyin' King
28 3-06 306 13/Apr/09 Poaching Timmy
29 3-07 307 20/Apr/09 Old Timer's Day
30 3-08 308 27/Apr/09 Twice
32 3-09 310 04/May/09 The Challenge
33 3-10 311 11/May/09 Family Style
34 3-11 309 13/May/09 May Divorce Be with You
34 3-12 312 18/May/09 House Money
35 3-13 313 18/May/09 Sex Toy Story
VIDEO: "Rules of Engagement" is presented by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Presentation quality is first-rate, as the picture appeared crisp and detailed throughout the episodes. A few minor instances of artifacting were spotted, but image quality for the majority of the running time appeared clean and smooth. Colors looked warm and bright, with nice saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: The show's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was purely a "comedy mix", with little in the way of noticable surround use. Audio quality was fine, with crisp dialogue.
Final Thoughts: "Rules of Engagement" has gone from forgettable to (deeply) funny in the span of a few seasons - a few tweaks and improved writing has resulted in a series that is now really showing its potential. The DVD provides fine audio/video quality, but no extras. Recommended.