Rules of Engagement



9:30-10 p.m., Monday, Feb. 5

That the CBS midseason entrant "Rules of Engagement" is undeniably funnier than most members of the couples-sitcom genre is to damn it with faint praise. Are all white guys who are in relationships with women destined to be hardcore slobs obsessed with sex, sports and suds? Are all of the women who love them somehow glib, intuitively wise, exceedingly tolerant and overly emotional?

This is the world built by the traditional primetime broadcast network comedy, and it's perhaps why the form itself is in crisis. It needs a new hook, and "Rules" ain't it. On the other hand, it does have some clever lines, and any show that co-stars Patrick Warburton ("The Tick," "Seinfeld's" Puddy) and David Spade ("The Showbiz Show," "Just Shoot Me") is nothing if not well cast. So kudos to casting directors Leslie Litt and Suzanne Goddard Smythe for having the good sense to get these guys.

Warburton in particular is a comic gold mine based on his bone-dry monotone delivery alone. I'd pay to hear him read a wine list, and would no doubt laugh heartily at it. In "Rules," he plays Jeff, a deadpan lug who has been married for 12 years to feisty Audrey (Megyn Price) and thus looks at the world through beer-colored glasses. He's always trying to figure out ways to combine sports and romance, or at least retain his tenuous hold on his masculinity. On the other side of their apartment building, we have Adam (Oliver Hudson of "The Mountain") and Jennifer ("Dawson's Creek" alumna Bianca Kajlich), newly engaged and thus still really hot for each other in a way that Jeff and Audrey only seem to be on special occasions like birthdays.

Completing this motley quintet is Russell (David Spade), who is single and thus a horndog commitment-phobe. (This is another network comedy rule: If you're a straight guy and aren't in a relationship, it is because you are constitutionally incapable of intimacy and therefore mask it with wisecracks.) Russell is Adam's best friend, and in the real world they are too different to have any realistic bonding potential. But this being TV, they're tight, and Spade's dependable cynicism and impeccable timing deliver the goods nicely.

In fact, there is really nothing all that wrong with the first couple of episodes supplied for review. The concept is to illustrate "different phases of the male/female relationship" (as in new, not so new and not anything). In the pilot penned by executive producer Tom Hertz, Adam and Jennifer have just gotten engaged, and Jeff warns Adam that he had better establish some rules or risk having his manhood erased. "She wanted a cat, and I didn't, so we compromised," he explains. "We got the cat." A second episode is sillier and less believable but has more of Warburton's sad-sack attitude, so it's easy to forgive.

Again, "Rules" is rife with attitude and snappy dialogue and the requisite mega-attractive characters. But there is a reason that the half-hour comedy as we've long known it plays like yesterday's news, and this show unfortunately embodies the same stale, cliche-riddled, boys-will-be-boys dynamic that the tube too often uses to pigeonhole adult relationship issues. White males remain the last group in America that you can pretty much smack around with impunity -- simple-minded, testosterone-driven doofs that they are -- and while you can still mine a few laughs from that, the calories being dispensed in the process are decidedly empty ones.

Happy Madison Prods. and CBS Paramount Network Television in association with Sony Pictures Television
Executive producers: Tom Hertz, Jack Giarraputo, Doug Robinson, Andy Ackerman
Producer: Barbara Stoll
Director: Andy Ackerman
Teleplay: Tom Hertz
Director of photography: Wayne Kennan
Production designer: Bernie Vyzga
Costume designer: Julie Rhine
Editor: Michael Karlich
Music: John Adair, Steve Hampton
Casting: Leslie Litt, Suzanne Goddard Smythe
Adam: Oliver Hudson
Jennifer: Bianca Kajlich
Jeff: Patrick Warburton
Audrey: Megyn Price
Russell: David Spade
Candy: Audra Blaser
Sarah: Smith Cho
Karen: Lauren Stamile
Margaret: Gloria Leroy
Henry: Don Perry