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‘8 Simple Rules’ not quite so simple

Can the show deal with the death of one of its characters?
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

I was all set to sit down and trash ABC and Touchstone TV for the decision to continue in production with “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” in the wake of star John Ritter’s still-unfathomable death. After all, the parent referred to in the title of the series is now gone. The simple rules would seem to have traveled to the grave with him.

Would "The Oprah Winfrey Show” go forward without Oprah Winfrey? “8 Simple Rules” was essentially “The John Ritter Show.” And now it’s going to be “The Katey Sagal Show,” or something akin. It’s arguably not destined to be nearly the same product that advertisers bought at the upfront market.

To that end, we are also supposed to be dealing with a purported comedy series here. Now, after running the final three episodes featuring Ritter that begin with the show’s second season premiere Tuesday night, it’s going to be a sitcom that’s far more “sit” than “com” — dealing with death and trauma and loss.

Pull up a chair and get depressed, America. This ain’t gonna be your daddy’s 8 o’clock comedy.

Let’s also dispense right here with the romantic notion that ABC is keeping this show going because it’s what Ritter would have wanted. We shouldn’t pretend it was anything but a calculated business decision. Yanking one of the few highly rated shows that the network has — and cutting its losses —would have been arguably a far greater financial burden than rolling the dice on a critically wounded property.

So we need not focus too long on the warm fuzzies. ABC certainly isn’t. Ritter had not been dead a week before the network was able to pull together last Tuesday the primetime hour “A Life of Laughter: Remembering John Ritter,” a warm tribute that came complete with a full slate of commercials.

If ever something called for the ad-free treatment, this figured to be it. And there’s no other way to slice it: ABC was profiting from Ritter’s memory. Already. And a tidy profit it was, as the special won the night.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON
But before we decide that ABC must now stand for Anything But Canceled, the move to retain “8 Simple Rules” also has an undeniable upside.

First and foremost are the cast and crew jobs that were saved. Unemployment is never a good thing, particularly in this economy, and dozens (if not a hundred or two) have been spared that ordeal. Ritter would indeed be pleased to know that his untimely departure didn’t force his extended family out of work.

It is also to ABC’s credit that it didn’t entertain the possibility of trying to replace Ritter’s character in the show. If that sounds like a no-brainer, consider that NBC recast Freddie Prinze’s role after he committed suicide in 1977 during the third season of “Chico and the Man” (even if he was actually replaced in the cast by a 12-year-old boy). That show was gone within a year.

No matter how crass one finds ABC’s logic here, it took more guts to try to stay the course than it would have to simply pack up and leave. The network was forced to navigate a publicity minefield and was able to walk that tightrope skillfully and tactfully, smartly earning the necessary blessing of Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck. It’s a credit to the acumen of ABC execs Susan Lyne and Lloyd Braun.

In the final analysis, whether ABC’s choosing to keep “8 Simple Rules” in production does a disservice to Ritter’s legacy is probably less important than the lesson that life does indeed go on for the survivors.

If the show does well — and it probably will, at least in the short term — this will look pretty smart. If it tanks, well, it will only underscore the true depth of the loss.