Ignorable 'Rules'

Oliver Hudson, left, and David Spade in the lame
Oliver Hudson, left, and David Spade in the lame "Rules of Engagement." (By Cliff Lipson -- Cbs)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 5, 2007

Every now and then, it seems reasonable to stop and wonder, "Where have all the sitcoms gone?" Then one network or another will introduce a new one, it will fall to earth with a sad "splat," and you are reminded that perhaps the only thing worse than a bad sitcom is a bad reality show. It's a race too close to call.

Take tonight's CBS debut. Please. The new show, "Rules of Engagement," does not rule. It tends instead to reek, emitting the aroma of a decaying clone. Essentially it's the umpty-umpth attempt to imitate "Friends," with the friends in this case being two couples (one married, one engaged) and a swinging single guy who can't imagine being tied down.

Actually, he can imagine being tied down, but only to the bed as part of some naughty sex play. The alleged comedy derives from the uncertainty built into relationships and the little things in life that make people alternately love and loathe one another.

In addition, and hewing to a relatively new sitcom tradition, there are lots of gay jokes and references. The first scene of the first episode, in fact, depends on gayness for a couple of wee laughs: We're in a diner and Russell, the single guy (David Spade), is joining his friend Adam (Oliver Hudson) for lunch.

Russell: "You ordered for me? Why don't we just make out?"

Adam announces his engagement to girlfriend Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich): "I proposed to her because I love her."

Russell: " So gay."

Adam: "Being in love with a girl is gay?"

Russell: "No -- but saying it out loud to another guy is."

And so writer Tom Hertz is off and stumbling with dialogue from the Book of Cheap and Easy Laughs. The gay references persist, and although individually they might not be offensive or crude, in profusion they just become obnoxious. They're also signs of lazy writing.

In next week's second episode, the words "annual" and "anal" are confused in an attempt at rib tickling.

This episode is called "The Birthday Deal," a reference to a special annual treat, presumably sexual, that Jeff (Patrick Warburton), married for 12 years, receives from his wife, Audrey (Megyn Price). Jeff won't tell Adam exactly what the "deal" is, but Adam tells Jeff: "I'm getting a deal," too, "and every year when I'm doing it, I'm going to think of you." Oh-ho, that's rich.

Later, at a furniture store, Adam tells Jeff that he has talked his fiancee into not one but two "birthday deals" each year. The writers try not to stray from the topic of sex for more than two minutes or so; they seem to feel helplessly adrift without a sex joke nearby. Thus is there talk of "crazy sex fantasies" and "kinky" sex practices.

And the long-suffering Jeff laments, during chitchat at a cocktail party, that "we sort of wrapped up the sex portion of our marriage" some time ago and moved on to a kind of convivial void. A few jokes border on funny, some really are funny, none are hilarious and most are laborious.

Warburton, so amusingly deadpan as Puddy on "Seinfeld," seems merely a bitter grouch here, and viewers might well wonder what makes the slight and disheveled Spade so attractive to gorgeous women. Perhaps they're farsighted.

Kajlich and Price are cheerfully innocuous, whereas Hudson comes across limply and wimpily. No one in the cast is likely to be your new favorite actor.

Every time a new sitcom is announced, some of us, giddy with optimism, wonder, "Will this be the new 'Seinfeld'?" Or, "Will this at least be the new 'Friends'?" But "Rules of Engagement" is neither. It's the new nothing, and it seems not only old at first encounter, but dead on arrival.

Rules of Engagement (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 9.

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