8 Simple Rules...

8 Simple Rules...

2002 - United States

“a warm, real and easy comedy”

8 Simple Rules review by Brian Slade

There’s a rather harsh reality that some American sitcoms that get branded with the ‘family’ description before it are instantly written off as sickly sweet or simply unfunny. In 2003 ABC aired a comedy that managed to be funny without betraying its target audience, mainly due to the combined talents of its leads and creative team, and it only ended after the tragic death of its star actor.

One of the dread fears of any father of girls is the day when their little angel becomes a teenager active in the dating game. Writer and columnist W Bruce Cameron released a book in 2002 entitled 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter: And Other Tips from a Beleaguered Father [not that any of them work]. Quite the mouthful, but also very successful, so much so that in the hands of established comedy producer Tracy Gamble (Home Improvement, The Golden Girls), ABC put into production the sitcom 8 Simple Rules…for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

The comedy, like its written inspiration, would deal with the challenges of a father trying to cope with teenage offspring. It needed a believable and likeable lead to play the exasperated father, so ABC pulled off a master stroke in opting for John Ritter. Ritter had achieved his greatest television success in Three’s Company, the American incarnation of Man About the House, which ran for eight seasons and made Ritter a household name.

8 Simple Rules

Playing alongside Ritter was Katey Sagal, another experienced comedy hand having played Peggy Bundy, the lazy wife of Ed O’Neill’s Al, in eleven seasons of Married… With Children.

Together they worked perfectly. Ritter was utterly believable as the former sportswriter Paul Hennessy, now battling to work as a columnist amidst the chaos of his home. Long before the days of home offices being the norm, Paul’s days were constantly challenged by the presence of his three offspring and his well-meaning advice, but utter bemusement at their lives left him baffled as to how to manage his own life.

Sagal’s character, Kate, is the proverbial level-headed parent, providing an alternative take for the daughters on life’s challenges and also offering a route for manipulation for the kids when Paul is being too dictatorial in his efforts to keep them from straying from their education, let alone dating a bad apple.

8 Simple Rules...

For all this to work, the kids had to be believable and likeable enough to help sympathise with Paul, and again the casting hit gold. In her breakthrough role, Kaley Cuoco, who would of course become famous for playing Penny in The Big Bang Theory, played eldest daughter Bridget. She would bring the greatest challenges for Paul. She is failing at school but doesn’t particularly care. For her, the superficial in life is of far greater importance. Popularity, looks, possessions – these are the things that drive her, and all are in stark contrast to the values Paul wants to instil in his daughters.

The more stable daughter is middle child Kerry (Amy Davidson). She has the brains but often feels left in the shadow of her more popular older sister. Her intentions are good, passionately advocating animal rights and always keen to question the narrative of the state, but she grows ever angrier as her achievements seem undermined by the popularity contest that seems to follow Bridget around.

8 Simple Rules

As if the two girls weren’t enough, a third Hennesy child exists in the form of Rory (Martin Spanjers). He has mastered wise-cracking at a young age and loves to use his skills at his sisters’ expense – especially if there is the chance to get either of them in trouble for any indiscretions they would rather keep away from their parents’ ears.

With a strong cast and a pacy and believable script, ABC even managed to secure some guests on the show that were long established in the comedy world. Cheers stars John Ratzenberger and Shelley Long are on hand as overly familiar neighbours, and Cybil Shepherd appears as Kate’s older sister.

The show may not have won prizes for unchartered territory, but 8 Simple Rules… was likeable fair and its cast were strong from the outset. Its renewal for a second season seemed to suggest it was destined for a decent run, but disaster struck when early in that second season, John Ritter fell ill on set and passed away from a dissected aorta. He was just 54 years old.

What happened to 8 Simple Rules…, aside from ditching the subtitle for subsequent episodes, was an unusual move and a refreshingly brave one. For three episodes, writers dealt head-on with Ritter’s death, killing off Paul and dealing with the mourning and desperate attempts to carry on with life. The performances are as real as they are heart-breaking to watch and a deserving nod to the departed Ritter.

8 Simple Rules

To continue the show, Cate’s father Jim is introduced to the main cast. Bringing in Hollywood heavyweight James Garner to provide some support for Cate proved a clever move, and it seemed to work well for a while as Jim did battle with a new wise-cracking character – Cate’s nephew CJ, played by David Spade.

8 Simple Rules

For a while the show carried on with reasonable ratings. Jim and CJ brought a new dimension and Spade always adds an element of goofiness to a role. However, the charm of Ritter’s character couldn’t be replicated and after the third season, ABC decided not to renew.

While it’s fair to say that 8 Simple Rules… wasn’t ever destined to win awards for originality or compete with big hitting sitcoms of its time, that was never its aim. It was a warm, real and easy comedy to watch and the way it dealt with Ritter’s death only proved as much. It may have been cruelly robbed of the opportunity to achieve a greater following, but 8 Simple Rules… offered a charming and moving farewell to one of America’s favourite sitcom stars.

Published on May 10th, 2023. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.

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