Men are oafish, smelly, barely sensate creatures who never do anything instinctually thoughtful and must be trained like dent-headed monkey-slobs to perform even the most basic of tasks. This is my primary objection to ''couples comedies'': They insist that men are idiots, and that women, perforce, are eye-rolling harridan-saints who nag and hector their husbands, yet ultimately understand their limitations. Monkey-slobs drink too much beer and don't appreciate things like art, but that's to be expected because they're so dumb. The entire scenario is as old as the hair scarf of Andy Capp's wife Flo, reeking of cigarette smoke and dead dreams and ridicule. And maybe ham salad.
Rules of Engagement, CBS' latest offering to the genre, follows two couples. One pair, Adam and Jennifer, has just gotten engaged (The Mountain's Oliver Hudson and Vanished's Bianca Kajlich); the other, Jeff and Audrey, has been married for over a decade (The Tick's Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price, who already served four years in marital purgatory on Grounded for Life). Sooooo one duo still has lots of sex and the other, less. It's funny because it's true! Or it's not that funny at all. Rules is similar to Fox's grimly unamusing comedy 'Til Death, but it has one major advantage: deadpan, rubbery Patrick Warburton. In Rules, he plays his married version of Puddy on Seinfeld, which enables him to get laughs out of used-up jokes like, Men don't like foreplay but they really like football. ''Be ready for sex more than three minutes before SportsCenter,'' he advises his wife after she complains about the briefness of their encounters. This mountain-size dude with a voice from a beef commercial and the cockiness of a cologne salesman makes a few of the gags work through sheer force of personality. And as the token womanizing best friend, Russell, David Spade pops up like a rangy meerkat, and swipes a few laughs before scuttling away.
But the central problem remains: These comedies are based on shortcomings and disappointment. And unless their writing is as frank as Roseanne or as slightly surreal as Curb Your Enthusiasm, the shows are less amusing than depressing. Sure, the guy comes through in the end (the lug lets his wife shop, for instance) and the girl suffers through the silliness (thanks to a bottle of wine and some new shoes). But are we all truly that quietly desperate and deeply, deeply boring? Why not a fresher take of the Thin Man variety with a clever couple who actually doted on each other, who bantered rather than mocked? It would require nimbler writing and a much cheerier outlook. But it would be nice to think that men and women had more interesting topics of conversation than mortgages and forgotten birthdays. C-