It is ironic that John Ritter—who first found fame as Three’s Company‘s Jack Tripper, the closeted, hormonally charged male third of TV’s most unwholesome threesome—is thrust again into the spotlight as a dad who would never dream of letting his two daughters go out with a man like Jack. In ABC’s new comedy, 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter, Ritter plays Paul Hennessy, a columnist who’s forced to take on more responsibility at home when his wife, Cate (Married With Children‘s Katey Sagal, looking great sans her Peg Bundy bouffant ‘do), goes back to work.
The first two episodes of the series are concrete proof that Ritter’s still got it, that intangible and inexplicable ability to elicit gut-busting laughter with a twitch of an eye. But his character is too familiar, his context too trite. In fact, Paul is the man Jack Tripper might have grown up to be, had failed contract negotiations and a revolving door for blondes not driven Three’s Company to an early grave.
The similarities between the two shows do not end there. Like Jack, Paul is surrounded by females. And his two daughters bear uncanny resemblances to the other two-thirds of the celebrated 1970s trio. There’s Bridget (Ladies Man‘s Kaley Cuoco), the dimwitted blonde bombshell à la Suzanne Somers’ Chrissy, and Kerry (Amy Davidson of the Olsen twins-driven So Little Time), a petulant brunette who makes Joyce DeWitt’s Janet seem almost congenial. There’s also a boy, 13-year-old Rory (Martin Spanjers), whose immature machinations are reminiscent of Jack’s smarmy best friend, Larry, played with unctuous glee by Richard Kline.
Even beyond these repetitions, the kids are stock sitcom characters. Bridget is the scholastically challenged beauty with boy troubles; Kerry is the insecure middle child who isn’t quite as pretty, but is twice as witty as her big sis; Rory’s only purpose is to bug his sisters. While the pilot merely introduces the characters, episode two, entitled “Wall of Shame,” is as hackneyed as they come—a full 30 minutes of Paul complaining that he’s missing a big game on TV because he has to deal with his ne’er-do-well offspring.
While 8 Simple Rules is “based on” the best-selling book by W. Bruce Cameron, it blatantly swipes elements from nearly every other sitcom on TV. Paul is a sportswriter just like Everybody Loves Raymond‘s title character. Kerry is a milder version of Roseanne‘s acerbic Darlene (Davidson even shares actress Sara Gilbert’s trademark curly coif). With no storyline of his own, Rory pops up every other scene with a cute punch line about his dad’s inept parenting or his sisters’ latest predicaments, just as Roseanne‘s D.J. used to do once upon a time. And Sagal’s Cate is simply the latest in a long line of accommodating TV wives who shake their heads at their husbands’ antics when the script says they should.
What makes the show slightly twisted, however, is the knowledge that only a few years ago, Ritter would have been playing one of Bridget’s or Kerry’s sex-obsessed suitors, rather than protective father. While it is expected that boys will be sex-obsessed in their youth, it is also expected that they will grow up into monogamous individuals. Had Jack been allowed to age, he might have found that he had more in common with Janet than Chrissy, given her a ring, bought a house in the suburbs, franchised his restaurant and fathered a number of tiny future chefs. Paul is still interested in sex, but regular romps with his wife make it weigh less on his mind.
So the show isn’t quite the mold-breaking comedy phenomenon audiences and ABC had been hoping for (ABC is particularly desperate, after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Dharma and Greg, and Spin City plummeted to ratings oblivion last season). But even if the show is too familiar, I for one don’t mind watching Ritter do his same old act, again.