Five days. That’s how long it took ABC to make one not-so-simple decision. “8 Simple Rules” star John Ritter died of a heart ailment on Sept. 11. Producers and network brass, while struggling with their own grief over the loss of Ritter, leapt into crisis mode and considered every option — and the business and public relations ramifications therein — including recasting Ritter’s character, bringing in a new father-figure, or shutting down production altogether.
But was a single workweek enough time to make a decision that will bear out as the right one? That’s yet to be established, but the first clues will become apparent on Tuesday, when ABC airs a one-hour episode of the show, the first without Ritter.
Producers likely felt intense pressure from several fronts: “Rules” was one of ABC’s top-rated shows, and millions of dollars of advertising revenue was at stake. Shuttering the show would have put the cast and crew suddenly out of work. And Ritter’s widow, Amy Yasbeck, reportedly gave her approval to the idea of moving forward with the show. So by Sept. 16, a day after Ritter’s funeral, ABC had announced that “8 Simple Rules” was going to continue. The death of Ritter’s character, Paul Hennessy, would be written into the show.
For a while, producers must have felt confident in their decision. The three episodes Ritter taped before he died drew record ratings. Almost 17 million people tuned in to the first episode; nearly 18 million watched the Ritter farewell. A week later, ABC ran a rerun of the well-liked nod to Ritter’s former life as Jack Tripper, the “Three’s Company” fantasy episode — complete with Ritter flipping over the sofa and cameo by Mr. Furley himself, Don Knotts — then hunkered down to prepare for a post-Ritter reality.
In mid-October, the show beefed up the show’s chances for longevity by announcing the addition of Suzanne Pleshette and James Garner to the cast. The jury’s still out on whether Jim Rockford and Emily from “The Bob Newhart Show” will be enough to help distract viewers from the gaping hole in the center of the show.
There’s a certain resonance to the tried and true theater mantra “the show must go on,” and it’s an admirable thought. But maybe it doesn’t apply to this particular show. Sometimes, the show shouldn’t go on.
Show needs to evolve
As a befuddled dad, Ritter brought his familiar slapstick affability to “8 Simple Rules,” strengthened by a vein of pathos and fatherly pride that ran through even the most ridiculous of situations. Without Ritter as its centerpiece, the show will likely be left with nothing more than shallow supporting characters, weighty emotional baggage, and the constant reminder of the talented comedian who used to live in the Hennessy house.
It will be interesting to see if Katey Sagal immediately steps up and takes the show onto her arguably able shoulders, or if she stands back and lets the pair of TV legends playing her separated parents carry the load. Pleshette’s signed on for a single guest appearance, and Garner is on board for at least four episodes.
No matter if today’s TV viewers know him or not, Garner is probably one of the best possible people to help the audience — and his on-screen family — get through the difficult first few episodes without Ritter. Who’s better at exuding low-key moodiness, stalwart support and twinkle-in-the-eye likeability than Garner?
But even if it all works somehow at the outset, the show will have to evolve into something different, something deeper, to stand a chance of renewal. “8 Simple Rules” was about how Ritter’s character struggled to relate to and understand his kids. Now that he’s gone, these remaining less-than-multi-dimensional characters — who usually exist primarily to argue about hair, makeup and clothes — will attempt to make the audience feel their pain at the loss of their father.
With some exceptions, it’s not a sitcom’s place to delve into heart-wrenching drama. Producers will need to tone down the fluff factor. Writers must considerably strengthen Sagal’s character. Up to now, she has more or less hung out on the sidelines and let Ritter do his thing. Eventually shifting the focus to revolve more around her job at the hospital, or introducing some quirky new friends to complement her new status as a single mom (a la “Alice”), would take some of the spotlight off the heavy issues she’s dealing with at home.
And, just as important, her kids are going to have to leave many of their superficial pursuits behind and grow into real, three-dimensional characters. They can — and should — still make viewers laugh, but the more the humor stems from their characters, rather than silly situations, the better.
Word is the first new episode was shot without a studio audience, an extremely level-headed notion. If producers struggled to squeeze straight-out punchlines from that first episode rather than letting the characters — and the actors — grieve, the audience very well may have turned on them.
Grief isn't funny
Even with Ritter involved, “8 Simple Rules” was middling fare at best. The story of writer Paul Hennessy’s quest to understand his teenage children seemed harmless enough, but it often dipped into strange and creepy areas, many of them sexual.
In one episode, Katey Sagal’s character thought she was pregnant, and the teenage kids bantered ad nauseum about how their parents must have made that happen. Another time, Ritter’s character took his daughter to a foreign film and, in a squirm-inducing moment, uncomfortably watched a graphic love scene with her. Older daughter Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) promised her parents that she wouldn’t sleep with her sailor boyfriend, and the joke at the very end of the episode was that’s exactly what she had planned. No lesson learned, other than that joking about teenage sex is now appropriate during the “family hour.”
Ratings for the first couple of new episodes are probably going to be sky-high, but the real test will be keeping those numbers up, after the rubberneckers grow bored and go back to whatever they were doing on Tuesday nights. Despite the addition of TV heavyweights Pleshette and Garner, the likelihood of maintaining an audience doesn’t look promising. “8 Simple Rules” already has three strikes against it.
First, grief isn’t funny. “M*A*S*H” pulled it off by weaving horribly real, uncomfortable plotlines into its laugh-tracked comic antics. But the show was about the Korean War, and viewers expected darkness. Its one-camera, shot-on-film production values made it all the more cinematic. “Rules,” on the other hand, is a suburban three-camera, videotaped sitcom, and a relatively frivolous one at that.
Second, there’s little precedence for this kind of move. Other comedies have tried to move on after a star’s death, and failed. After the shocking murder of Phil Hartman, “NewsRadio” acknowledged his character’s death, then tapped Hartman’s friend Jon Lovitz to help fill the void. The show lasted just one more season. When Freddie Prinze killed himself, “Chico and the Man” cast a new, younger actor, and the show folded in a year. Redd Foxx’s final sitcom, “The Royal Family,” tried to rebound from his death just seven episodes into its first season by bringing in sassy Jackée, but it, too, quickly faltered.
And finally, frankly, “8 Simple Rules” is simply not that good. The children’s characters could have been cut and pasted from just about any stock Eighties family sitcom, like “Gimme a Break!” or “Charles in Charge.” The stereotypes are all there: the vacuous blonde older sister, the brainy middle girl, and the wisecracking younger son. Nell Carter and Scott Baio would have felt right at home with that lineup.
Show has no center
Yes, Katey Sagal is solid — if a little dull and underutilized — as working mom Cate. And the actors playing the kids are fine, particularly Amy Davidson (who’s actually far older than her TV siblings) as younger daughter Kerry. But what’s with all the yelling? Lines are often delivered with all the subtlety of a fourth-grade theater production, playing to the audience, and projecting far more than necessary. Even Ritter, whose morose subtlety in “Sling Blade” won over a new generation of fans for his restrained acting, hammed it up more often than not.
And what about the usually surefire tactic of booking likable sitcom stars from days of yore as recurring characters? Snagging TV stalwarts Cindy Williams (“Laverne & Shirley”) and John Ratzenberger (“Cheers”) as the Hennessys’ next-door neighbors must have sounded like a can’t-miss idea, but the characters — and actors — quickly wore out their welcome, becoming shrill and unlikable.
With Ritter involved, “8 Simple Rules” was a little bit greater than the sum of its parts. The actor’s manic energy, easy manner and intense likeability made the show at least watchable. Now, without him, it could end up as not much more than a bunch of disjointed limbs, flailing and looking for their center.
Viewers will fondly remember Ritter from his earlier, better work. Watching his latest TV family grieve for the rest of the show’s run — however long that turns out to be — can only serve to supplant fond memories of the beloved actor with sorrow. Maybe there should have been a ninth simple rule: Know when to gracefully hang it up.
Brian Bellmont is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.