Rules Of Engagement

Everybody accepts that TV critics can’t watch everything. We’re supposed to be the people who’ve wasted our lives seeing enough to guide you skillfully, yes, but we’re also supposed to have lives and not spend our entire lives watching whatever happens to be airing on CBS at 10 p.m. on a Friday. (Spoilers: It’s Blue Bloods.) We pick and choose. We watch more TV than most, but we don’t watch all TV, because that would be insane. And yet we’re also supposed to have sampled enough of it—or at least enough of the stuff on the major networks and cable channels—that we can guide you away from the H8Rs and toward the Mad Mens.

But at the same time, we’ve all got blind spots. And up until today, one of mine was Rules Of Engagement. I knew it existed. I knew it had somehow lasted an obscenely long time by getting ratings that were just good enough. (It’s been on the air for five full seasons and is starting its sixth. Only season five lasted a full, 24-episode order, with season one lasting but seven episodes, and seasons two through four running 13.) I knew it was closing in on syndication despite my never hearing of anyone who watched it. And I knew it was the very definition of a time slot hit, holding on to just enough of Two And A Half Men or The Big Bang Theory’s audience to justify its continued existence. Also, I knew it starred Patrick Warburton and David Spade. That was about it.

I’d never watched a single episode of the show, not even on an airplane (where many people seem to encounter the thing). It wasn’t like I was actively avoiding it; it just never seemed like a priority, and I had never watched the show’s pilot back in the day. Clearly, somebody somewhere liked the damn thing, but to me, it always seemed like a holdover from 2002, when everybody was trying to clone Everybody Loves Raymond and failing, because they never quite understood what made that show work was the fact that underneath all the anger was a kernel of love. Rules Of Engagement, like a lot of these types of shows, seemed to be about angry people who were married to each other for some inexplicable reason and the younger couples they both inspired and terrified. It was sort of like that beloved hit TV series 'Til Death.

In watching the sixth season premiere, I found a show that isn’t something I’d ever watch from week to week but is, nonetheless, pretty skillful at what it does. I found what I saw bland and needlessly insult-filled, complete with a couple of actors who don’t really add anything to the action. But there was something about it that flowed along well enough, to the point where I could see why people choose to kill time with this, instead of switching over to something else after the show they really came to see is done. Like most shows of this type, Rules is based on regressive stereotypes—old married couples never have sex; ladies with lots of cats are crazy; young, studly dudes are vain—but it never dwells on them so much that they become actively repulsive. Granted, the show has other problems, but it seems like it’s mostly gotten the “married people are like this, and young couples are like this” material that made critics roll their eyes at the show when it debuted out of its system.

The problem with the show, outside of the fact that none of the jokes are particularly funny, based as they are on the sorts of gags you can see coming a mile away, is that the younger couple, played by Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich, just isn’t very interesting or amusing. They’re supposed to be the youthful, vital couple that throws the older couple (played by Warburton and Megyn Price) into relief, but something that producers of these types of shows realized long ago is that having young, happy people whom the audience is supposed to compare and contrast with the older people is rarely a ticket to hilarity or good stories. People who are mostly satisfied are rarely interesting or funny, and the show has apparently decided, instead, to have Hudson and Kajlich’s characters offer weak advice about love and sex—in this episode, about dirty talk—to Warburton and Price’s characters. Oh, Hudson also falls asleep in the sun and half of his body gets sunburned. Seriously. That’s his storyline.

The big material the network has promoted for this premiere is the fact that David Spade’s character, Russell (the only one whose name I can remember without consulting a press site), got married to Liz, the crazy cat lady who lives above Warburton and Price, apparently. Now, Liz is an awful, ill-conceived character, but she’s played by a wonderful comedic actress, Wendi McLendon-Covey, and I found myself enjoying the scenes between her and Spade even as I was counting off all of the things they did that resorted to rote, stereotype humor or all-too-predictable punchlines. Russell finds out that since he and Liz didn’t consummate their marriage—embarked upon on a cruise ship—he can ask for an annulment. He goes over to her apartment to get that annulment. I think all of you can see where this is going. But Spade and McLendon-Covey have fun with the two’s irresistible attraction to each other, and McLendon-Covey is very good at playing the worst person on Earth. The episode doesn’t end with the two splitting up; instead, Liz moves in with Russell, and if I thought the show was going to be about those two, I might tune in again.

Sadly, instead, the show is about the two couples at its center. And while I really like Warburton and think he and Price have a nice, easy-going chemistry, it’s hard to see what the show’s doing here that will do anything beyond little anecdotes you could find in the “Life In These United States” section of a Reader’s Digest. Tonight’s episode involved Price asking Warburton to introduce dirty talk into their humdrum sex life, and while I smirked at a scene where he clinically described exactly what he was doing to turn on his wife—“My right hand is on your right breast, well, my right, your left”—it was mainly funny because the lights were off, Warburton has a great voice, and it was easy to pretend one of Warburton’s many animated characters was the one offering up a school of lovemaking.

But at the same time, who knows? Maybe I just checked out a bum episode, and the rest of the show is a cutting, incisive critique of American relationships. I never checked in on the show back in the day because critics I respected said it wasn’t worth it, but maybe in the interim, when the show was bouncing around the schedule and popping up at odd times of the season, it turned into some sort of masterwork, and we all missed it. Based on what those critics said and what I saw in the season six premiere, I’m not going to be betting money on it, or anything, but there are some pleasures that can be found in life that stem from simple enough things, like a cat licking David Spade all over his face.