The loss of John Ritter – his shocking death in September at age 54 – was felt anew with the return of ”8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter” on Nov. 4. What was intended to be a touching, expanded hour-long edition of the sitcom – whose producers had decided to mirror real life and have Ritter’s character, newspaper columnist Paul Hennessy, die with premature suddenness – proved to be an awkward botch. It did Ritter’s ebullient spirit no great honor to have his costars slog through a weepy installment of the comedy, which also tried to slide in a few mild laughs. This episode only emphasized what a mediocre show ”8 Simple Rules…” was whenever Ritter wasn’t on camera to mug endearingly and give a cornball line a wise-guy spin that could occasionally rouse a viewer’s grin.
Just before Katey Sagal’s Cate received the bad news via a phone call, her children, teenagers Bridget (Kaley Cuoco), Kerry (Amy Davidson), and Rory (Martin Spanjers), were doing some typical squabbling – variations on the usual poor-taste, banal running gag about how ”hot” Bridget is. After Paul’s death was announced, Cate’s parents – characters we’d never seen before – came to comfort the family. They were played by the exemplary TV veterans Suzanne Pleshette and James Garner. Garner had the instinctive grace to underplay every scene, as though he felt obliged to help out a troubled show, but could not quite commit to an episode that had him changing a lightbulb as a metaphor for bringing some brightness into the Hennessys’ lives.
Pleshette’s job was even more onerous than the one she faced trying to shore up ”Good Morning, Miami”: She had to be the person to tell Cate that this death was ”all part of God’s plan” – so that Cate could at first discount the Almighty and then accept His will. When ”8 Simple Rules…” premiered, some critics, myself included, noted that Sagal, such a strong presence previously in ”Married…With Children,” had been reduced to a curiously small supporting role. Now, pushed to the forefront, her skills have become apparent. Sagal invested many trite lines with a controlled emotion that made them bearable. The same cannot be said for Bridget’s plaint – ”The last thing I said to him was ‘I hate you!”’ – which just came off as selfishly bratty as everything else this irritating character has said for the past season.
The hour felt obliged to go through as many of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief as possible in the space of 60 minutes – minus ads for the likes of Pizza Hut. Such phases as denial, anger, depression, and acceptance were handled with unseemly haste. I’m sure some viewers were moved by this hour, but I think it’s a mistake to let this process go on. Continuing with ”8 Simple Rules…” so it can get back to laugh-tracked yuks about how trampy Bridget is – that’s no way to salute John Ritter, or for ABC to pull in ratings they can live with.