Gary Susman
November 06, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Would people watch ”8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” without John Ritter? Would they want to spend several episodes watching the sitcom’s Hennessy family coping with the sudden death of Ritter’s patriarch, written out of the show since Ritter’s own shocking sudden death in September? Initially, the answer proved to be yes. According to Nielsen, some 20.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the show’s largely laugh-track free return, after two months of retooling to cope with the somber reality of Ritter’s loss. It was the biggest audience ever for the year-old series, which drew 17.7 million viewers on Oct. 7 for the last episode Ritter made, and the biggest sitcom audience for ABC since the 32.8 million who watched Michael J. Fox’s farewell from ”Spin City” in May 2000.

Overall, ”Rules” helped ABC rule the first Tuesday of the November ratings sweeps period, averaging 14.9 million viewers for the night. It remains to be seen if viewers will stick with the show once the high-profile guest stars (like James Garner and Suzanne Pleshette as the estranged grandparents) leave, or if the laugh-track doesn’t come back soon.

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