"Rules of Engagement" was introduced as a mid-season replacement. 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 to live-action TV for 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, seen it, done it." They have a comfortable relationship occasionally interrupted by bickering, but still genuinely love - or at least tolerate - each other. There's also Adam (Oliver Hudson) and Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich), a younger couple who are still ironing out the occasional issue that arises in their relationship. Hovering around them all is Russell (David Spade playing David Spade), a single guy who wants to stay that way.
The first season of the series was generic and forgettable. While it wasn't unwatchable, it really lacked a certain something and didn't seem strong enough to last more than a season or two. 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 and utter 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. For those who are familiar with the internet series "Red Vs. Blue", the creators have essentially made Hudson's character Caboose. While Kajlich had little to do in the first season or two, making Hudson's character a simpleton suddenly gives her something to play off of, and the result of her tolerating every dim comment is very funny.
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 series has tweaked and improved Timmy (Adhir Kalyan) - Russell's prim and proper assistant - in the fourth season - and the character continues to provide the perfect foil for Spade's character. While Timmy often spars with Russell and occasionally tries to sabotage his plans, there's a few moments here-and-there that hint at a genuine friendship. One of the story arcs of the season has Russell falling for Timmy's fiance and having to try and figure out what to do when he thinks the one who may put an end to his womanizing ways is in the process of getting married to a co-worker.
The show's writing also continues to improve, with the biggest example being the snappily-written "Atlantic City", which sees Jeff lying to Audrey about heading to Atlantic City with Adam, Russell and Timmy after the bachelor party he was going to attend is cancelled (when Russell suggests that someone isn't using their brain when it becomes apparent Audrey doesn't know the party is cancelled, Adam looks around and excitedly questions, "Is it me?") When her parents cancel their visit, she heads off to a spa weekend with Jennifer. When the two learn about each other not telling the truth, rather than admitting it, they both believe they can try and one-up the other. While any other series would have made this a one-sided episode where the husband is wrong and the wife catches him (this would have been a five minute lecture from Jill if Tim, Al and Wilson had run off to the nearest Harrah's and not told her in "Home Improvement"), the episode gets some terrific laughs from having a level playing field. While the series has improved in a number of regards, the relationship between the Warburton and Price characters has gotten richer and funnier as the seasons have gone on.
Other highlights from the season include: "Flirting" (Jeff gets himself in some trouble when he takes Russell's advice to respond to a co-worker's flirtations), "Ghost Story" (Audrey gets upset when Jeff doesn't believe her after she says she saw her grandmother's ghost) and the season finale, "They Do?". The one negative of this season is that it starts off the storyline about Audrey and Jeff finding a surrogate, a thread that may have in some ways developed the characters a little further, but hasn't resulted in much humor.
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 4
36 4-01 401 01/Mar/10 Flirting
37 4-02 402 08/Mar/10 Snoozin' for a Bruisin'
38 4-03 403 15/Mar/10 Atlantic City
39 4-04 404 22/Mar/10 Ghost Story
40 4-05 405 29/Mar/10 The Four Pillars
41 4-06 406 05/Apr/10 3rd Wheel
42 4-07 407 12/Apr/10 Indian Giver
43 4-08 408 19/Apr/10 Free Free Time
44 4-09 409 26/Apr/10 The Score
45 4-10 410 03/May/10 The Surrogate
46 4-11 10/May/10 Reunion
47 4-12 17/May/10 Harassment
48 4-13 24/May/10 They Do?
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.