[17 June 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When John Ritter passed away during the filming of the second season of ABC’s 8 Simple Rules (previously known as 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, it was hard to imagine the show continuing at all, let alone doing his memory justice. After all, Ritter was the sitcom’s comic center, and a father figure to cast members both on and off screen.
Thankfully, everyone involved in the show pulled together and soldiered on beautifully, just as one would hope that people would do in real life in the face of such a tragic loss. Not only did they continue in a way that lovingly honored Ritter, but, perhaps just as importantly, they never lost sight of that fact that 8 Simple Rules is a comedy.
That’s not to say that the cast and creators skimmed over the difficult topics. There are some very real, very deep, and very touching emotional moments, especially in the first few episodes after the death of Paul Hennessy, Ritter’s character. Particularly well portrayed are Cate’s (Katey Sagal) sense of emptiness—unable to sleep in the bedroom she shared with Paul—and her frustration at being unable to stop the pain her children felt because she was experiencing so much pain and grief herself.
Sagal’s performance is pitch-perfect as a woman who suddenly finds herself both a widow and a single mom in one fell swoop. If Cate is the family’s rock in their time of crisis, then Sagal is the show’s gem.
The actors playing the three Hennessy kids are also spot-on in their respective portrayals of unfathomable grief. But they are also hitting all the notes of somewhat typical teen behavior. And because they are teenagers, the comedy comes back quicker than it does with the other characters.
When Bridget (The Big Bang Theory‘s Kaley Cuoco) and Kerry (Amy Davidson from CSI: NY) return to high school a few weeks after their father’s death and are greeted by uncomfortable silence in the cafeteria, Bridget blurts out “Geez, who died?” It’s not the most sensitive sentiment, and some viewers may have found it even a little offensive, but it is in keeping with her somewhat superficial character, and best of all, it’s truly funny.
Cuoco’s Bridget tends to get the lion’s share of comedic bits as the season continues, and she delivers them brilliantly, but the brightest spots are the poignant moments mixed in during exchanges between Bridget and Kerry. To me, the reconnection of the sisterly relationship and the strengthening of those bonds becomes the focal point of the show. Additionally, Davidson’s level-headed Kerry is the perfect foil for flighty Bridget.
Completing the triad of comic teens is Martin Spanjers (HBO’s True Blood) as younger brother Rory. Though often overshadowed by the girls, he has some really great moments too, both in the 14-year-old boys are inherently humorous category, and in the sense of a young man losing his hero and role model at a pivotal age. He plays both with an openness that adds volumes to the believability of the character as well as the show. Watching these three navigate these situations, it’s tough to imagine more perfect casting on television.
Rounding out the core cast are season two additions James Garner as Cate’s father, Jim and David Spade as her slacker nephew, CJ. Garner plays Jim as the cantankerous curmudgeon he has perfected over the years, and Spade’s CJ is his patented pop-culture spewing persona with a hidden heart of gold. Clearly both were brought in to fill the vacant fatherly role, Jim with a grandfatherly version of worldly wisdom and CJ with an irreverent, slightly skewed version of sage advice. They are both good—and funny—in these parts, especially when at odds with one another, but it says a lot that it takes two comic actors to attempt to fill the void left by Ritter.
The 8 Simple Rules: Season Two DVD set features all 24 original episodes, but it doesn’t include any bonus material. One imagines that this is because of Ritter’s absence, and it’s just as well. Tearful interviews and after-the-fact tribute features are entirely unnecessary when the show itself has done such a fantastic job of honoring the man, his memory and his comedy.