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8 Simple Rules
The Complete First Season

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rating: TV PG (Dialogue and Language)

Running Time: 601 minutes

Starring: John Ritter, Katey Segal, Kaley Cuoco, Amy Davidson, Martin Spanjers

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $23.99

Features: Blooper Reel

Specs: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Stereo, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Scenes (5 per episode), Three-Disc Set

Released: August 7th, 2007

It's weird to think back to five years ago, in 2002 when "8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter" debuted, that the traditional four-camera situation comedy was pretty much alive. Fast forward five years later, and the genre that was always a network TV staple seems pretty much dead: most of us are now obsessed with serialized dramas that seem to taunt us more than satisfy us, and which we consume not just on their regular night and time - but on our DVRs, iPods, the Internet and DVD sets. And scripted comedy? Who talks about that these days? Some still exist on network TV, but a live studio audience is no longer mainstream: it's all about one camera comedies, with visual jokes you'll probably miss the first time out and plenty of edgy and subtle humor. Despite a few shows (most of which seem to be on CBS), is there really a place for a traditional sitcom on the air? What about the traditional family sitcom?

Even though it's a few years old, perhaps "8 Simple Rules" could be seen as a full-on attempt to make a sitcom the whole family could gather around and watch. The series did have longevity, but maybe not in the way it expected (more on this in a bit). When it began though, "8 Simple Rules" had the usual formula of parents trying to raise their kids despite such a cultural gap, but it also reflected more modern sensibilities about teenagers who came of age with the rise of the Internet, and their parents who had to re-juggle their professional lives.

The series took place in a Michigan suburb, and focused on the Hennessy clan. Mom Cate (Katey Segal) decided to go back to work as a nurse, and dad Paul (John Ritter) was able to fiddle his working life so he'd mainly be able to work at home as a sports columnist. Even though Cate gets a fair shake in the parenting at hand, the concept of the series revolves around Paul - who's now at home a lot of the time - communicating with his daughters (Bridget and Kerry, played by Kaley Cuoco and Amy Davidson, respectively) and helping them through the pains adolescence can bring, even if he doesn't understand often and is obviously out-of-touch about kids (hence a primary and predictable source of laughs). Also along for the ride is younger brother Rory (Martin Spanjers), who doesn't figure into the show's plots primarily usually, but rather as another source of comic relief.

The title of the show comes from a column writer W. Bruce Cameron wrote in 1998. Truthfully, I have no idea why the series is even called "8 Simple Rules." Perhaps it was meant as some kind of springboard to showcase Paul as an overprotective father when it came to his daughters developing romantic lives, but the "rules" are seldomly used. Thematically, the show covers all aspects of being a teenager - as well as the sometimes-fickle relationships teens have with their own parents: the yearn for independence while growing up, and still being stuck in the house.

Of course, one can't talk about "8 Simple Rules" without discussion of its lead actor, John Ritter. It seems as if the show was built for Ritter. While he never went away and had numerous film roles and guest appearances on other series through the 80s and 90s, "8 Simple Rules" was a comeback of sorts for Ritter - the lead role on a sitcom that seemed to fit his sensibilities as a gifted comedic actor. It's not as if Jack Tripper grew up, but perhaps more accurately, Tripper's fans grew up - that those who watched Ritter in seventies as young adults were now parents of their own, and could relate to Paul Hennessy's struggles in this current day and age.

John Ritter was very much the face and star of "8 Simple Rules," so it was incredibly tragic when he suddenly passed away when the second season of the series got under way in the fall of 2003. The show's legacy should extend far beyond Ritter's untimely passing, and how the show had to switch creative gears (which I think is what instantly comes to mind when many people think of the series). The legacy should really be of John Ritter himself. Even though he ultimately appeared in a little less than half of the entire series' run, his work on the show shows that Ritter's talent never waned. Ritter is boisterous, perfectly embodying the frustrations of a father who is gradually learning to let go of his daughters, and face the confusing teen years with them head-on. Ritter is more a straight man in the sitcom, but he sure knows how to deliver the appropriate reaction and witty punchline. Ritter is a livewire and does show some of that physical manic energy we may recognize him for, but he also gets moments that are more quiet, and he plays the serious and introspective scenes quite well.

As enjoyable as Ritter was on the show, the contributions of the other actors must be noted. Katey Segal, also a sitcom veteran, is well cast as Cate. Segal plays her with an ample sweetness, which is quite the antidote to her days as Peg Bundy. Kaley Cuoco embodies the stereotypical girl obsessed with boys and more shallow interests to an eerily realistic degree, making her a great contrast to Amy Davidson as the more nerdy sister. Davidson's knack for delivering sarcasm and showcasing moodiness at times gives the series a little more of a raw edge. Since her character is a little outsider-ish and still finding her place, it makes the show all the more realistic. And of course, there's Martin Spanjers who does well as the annoying kid brother who can stir up some trouble. This is a fine ensemble, and they all wonderfully played off of Ritter.

What makes "8 Simple Rules" an entertaining and pleasurable sitcom in its first year is that it takes its characters, situations and audience seriously. Perhaps the Hennessy sisters are caricatures, and Rory is that stereotypical kid brother we're familiar with - but the series treated them with reverence, and extended them beyond usual archetypes. The Hennessy sisters each got fair shakes at plot lines. Just because Bridget was more popular and had the beach-blond looks, she wasn't prone to getting hurt. And in the season, Kerry also comes into her own a bit. The parents too were also given opportunities to evolve. Paul being the most obvious as he learns from his daughters and tries to protect them from what society has evolved to (among other things), but also Cate as she rejoins the working world after being a stay-at-home mom - and also deals with her own family (such as her sister, played by Cybill Shepherd in the two-part season finale).

The situations the characters were placed in while not always original (but that's what you come to expect from nearly every sitcom), but still quite amusing - and the dialogue features some great one-liners worthy of some chuckles and even laughing out loud. Also, the show's more serious and emotional moments never felt forced. Like a good show, there's a lot of issues and themes we can all relate to. Helping too was limited use of musical cues. What a relief - having just dialogue and still moments for characters to think without some cheesy music actually lets viewers take in a bit more of the emotion, and not telling them what to feel. This really felt like a sturdy, natural sitcom.

As many expected, "8 Simple Rules" gradually floundered without Ritter - but it wasn't for the lack of trying. The series became about dealing with the death of a parent, followed by a focus on other family members (played by James Garner and David Spade). But this was a pretty consistent first season, that definitely found its groove and began to gel as it went on - just as a good first season for any series should. With that said, I can't help but wonder how the series would have progressed if Ritter did not pass away, and if it would have lasted beyond three seasons. Unfortunately, I don't think the show ever got to meet its full potential. (I'm sure the series switching showrunners too during the years didn't help.) For all we know, this could have been to what "Full House" was in the late 1980s and to what "Home Improvement" was in the 1990s: an iconic family sitcom. How I miss the days when there was a show that was spread across the board for pretty much everyone in the household - that had jokes and topics that weren't too risqué, and was rooted in tradition.

They don't make them like they used to.

 

 

I was pretty surprised to learn that "8 Simple Rules" was filmed in widescreen right from the beginning (hmm, I guess ABC was on the HD bandwagon for scripted programming earlier than I thought), so you get to see the show in all its wide glory on DVD. The episodes are presented anamorphically, in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The transfers are decent, but don't have much of a wow factor to them. The flaws are a bit glaring: noise and edge halos are on the high side, and fleshtones seem to be a tiny bit off. There is no edge enhancement, and detail is okay. Color saturation is decent, but on the whole is really flat - colors are often a little muted, and nothing pops out. These transfers are nothing bad, and certainly watchable, but they are not as sharp as I hoped they would be.

 

The episodes also feature English Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, and they're pretty good given that this is a sitcom. Fidelity on the tracks are high, and the dynamic range is broad. There's not too much to say about these tracks other than that the seldom musical cues are mixed appropriately through the channels, while the laughtrack helps add a little extra room. There aren't really any surround effects, or subwoofer effects to speak of. The dialogue is clear though, and very easy to hear. In short, nothing at all stands out, but the tracks sound pretty natural and suiting for the material.

French stereo tracks for the episodes are included, as well as subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

 

Nothing much. The first disc has your usual Disney sneek peaks, while the third disc has a Blooper Reel. The reel is in full screen, and lasts a solid 10 minutes. It's a pretty fun reel that really highlights the comedic mannerisms of John Ritter - it seems like it was always fun to be on set with him, as he cracks up the cast and is rather infectious. Sigh - what a loss. I hope season two on DVD will bring a John Ritter tribute feature.

 

It doesn't exactly re-invent the wheels of the sitcom, but "8 Simple Rules" certainly plays to the format's strengths with sharp writing, solid themes involving adolescents in relation to family and a nice acting ensemble led by the late, great John Ritter. The first season of the series on DVD has pretty good episode transfers and the 5.1 mixes are decent, but is lacking in the extras department. Still, you get a lot of episodes for a pretty low price. Fans of the series, John Ritter or traditional sitcoms, you might want to pick this one up.