Judge Daniel Kelly only has one simple rule: Clothing optional.
Bridget: Kerry, are those my earrings?
Raising teenage girls is apparently hard (I wouldn't know…yet) and the hook for sitcom 8 Simple Rules was based around this fact of nature. The first season took stay at home dad Paul Hennessy (John Ritter, Bad Santa) and pitted him against his two teenage girls, as mom Cate (Katey Sagal, Smart House) went back to work. After a successful and pretty entertaining first season, disaster struck, Ritter tragically dying only a few episodes into the second series aged 54. However, instead of canceling the show, the creators addressed the star's death and worked it into the show's plotline, focusing this season around the family dealing with the grief, with a few new players subbed in to add comic relief. The Hennessey core remains the same: beautiful but narcissistic Bridget (Kaley Cuoco, The Big Bang Theory), smart but sullen Kerry (Amy Davidson, Malcolm in the Middle), and trouble-making Rory (Martin Spanjers, Max Keeble's Big Movie). We're also given homeless cousin C.J (David Spade, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star) and newly divorced Grandpa (James Garner, The Notebook) as the new additions to fill Ritter's comedic void, and of course Sagal remains as the troubled but determined single mother.
Ritter remains present for the opening trio of episodes, before the show takes a tonal change at the fourth. The Ritter episodes are very similar in style to the show's first season and are all pretty funny. As game as Garner and Spade where, the beginning of Season 2 shows that, in terms of laughs, they were never going to match the ill-fated leading man. Ritter and Sagal enjoy a fizzy chemistry in these more lighthearted offerings and the argumentative dialogue between Paul and his daughters (particularly an airheaded Cuoco) is extremely well written. Then of course tragedy hits, and it has to be said the episode in which Ritter dies, entitled "Goodbye," is an outstanding effort by any sitcom's standards. Every actor flawlessly channels the pain and sadness that they felt at the passing of Ritter himself, and turns it into an emotionally painful and realistic piece of TV. That episode also features no laugh track, definitely more dramatic than comedic in tone and feel.
The death of the patriarch remains a key theme for the rest of the season, though only a few episodes after "Goodbye," the show does revert back to its more light-heated formula. The shift back to pleasant- and goofy-style television arrives along with David Spade, working well into a cast that he previously had no part in. James Garner had already guested in a few episodes and so was a little more prepared than Spade for becoming a regular fixture, but the minute funnyman actually pulls rank and builds a rapport with the rest of the cast fairly quickly. The episode "Mall in the Family" is probably the funniest in the set, largely due to Spade's tireless work and willingness to portray himself as the likable idiot. Also some of the comic interludes with him and Garner work very well, their love/hate relationship also providing a handsome portion of the show's comedy material.
The regulars retain their quality of output, Spanjers is even given an upgrade from purely comic relief to a more fully developed member of the family. However it's Sagal who deserves the most applause, working beautifully as both a comedienne and dramatic actor she delivers a season's worth of excellent performances as the widowed Cate, in the absence of Ritter giving this season it's most consistent motor. Cuoco and Davidson also up their game when the material calls for it, but in truth both are best when playing to type.
8 Simple Rules is, for the most part, a well strung together sitcom with acceptable levels of good comedy, but what really separates it are the well-portrayed elements of loss and grief that quietly recur as the series progresses. A lot of the storylines follow sitcom convention as tightly as possible but the underlying themes of sorrow and tragedy give them a boost and along with some great performances offer up enjoyable viewing.
The set features all 23 episodes from Season 2, presented in Widescreen with a 2.0 stereo mix. The technical features are basic but not terrible; the real annoyance is the utter absence of bonus materials. In a season where the lead actor passed away, it wouldn't be unlikely that the DVD should offer a tribute or retrospective, but in this case fans of Ritter and the show in general get offered nothing. Maybe they're saving everything for the release of the considerably less impressive third season (the show was cancelled shortly after it aired), but one would have thought it more fitting to put it on this release. Still fans will be glad that the show's most defining moments are now available in this three disc set.
In terms of laughs 8 Simple Rules: The Complete Second Season is
credible but nothing spectacular, it's the skillfully dealt with drama that sets
this one apart. The DVD release is poor but many a fan will simply be glad that
their favorite show has finally made it to disc. Not guilty.
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