The opening titles for The Rules of Engagement are soundtracked by Los Lonely Boys’ “Heaven,” which should tell you all you need to know about the new CBS show. “Heaven” is a soft, office-radio kind of song, neither too noisy nor too boring to annoy anyone. It’s the musical equivalent of beige, and Rules of Engagement is the televisual.
Yet another entry in the heterosexual-battle-of-the-sexes sitcom genre, Rules‘ “wit” begins and ends with its punning title. Indexing metaphors of war, the show also brings up the mass cultural phenomenon The Rules (TM): Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. For the record, that “TM” in parenthesis is accurate; apparently even the phrase “The Rules” has become so intimately connected to this het-romance psycho-babble that it can be trademarked. In any case, blah, blah, blah: love is a battlefield and romance is something that needs to be “engaged.”
Rules pits three “types” of heterosexual couple against each other so that wackiness might ensue. Audrey (Megyn Pryce) and Jeff (Patrick Warburton, dead-pan and excellent as always) have been married 12 years and are settled nicely into their routines (playfully combative, but deeply loving, naturally). Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich) and Adam (Oliver Hudson) have only dated seven months but are already engaged, even as they’re still getting to know each other. Russell (David Spade) is a “player” (really? David Spade?) who lies about his age to his many one-night stands.
While the women are sometimes perplexed by their men’s behaviors, it’s the men’s insecurities and uncertainties that drive the show. Straight guys, when not openly hostile to or resentful of women, are befuddled by them. Thus, they need “rules” and why straight girls need “secrets” to help “capture” them.
Such anxieties are front and center in the second episode, “The Birthday Deal.” It’s Jeff’s birthday, and when discussing the upcoming party to be thrown by his wife, he lets slip to Adam that the party doesn’t matter so much as the annual post-party “birthday deal” he has with Audrey: that’s his real present. Adam prods, Jeff demurs, insisting that if Audrey finds out he’s told anyone the birthday deal if off. Adam decides he needs to establish a similar deal with Jennifer, but she cottons to the idea and insists she get one as well. He’s initially excited about double deals, with a running joke among the guys about what he might get (top or bottom) “anally/annually.” Adam quickly becomes disillusioned. He begins to fear exactly what debauchery Jennifer could demand, which might make him, as Jeff puts it, unable to “even look at her when your mother’s in the room.”
What Jennifer wants is, unsurprisingly, romance: every year Adam will wake her with a morning foot rub, serve her breakfast in bed, then treat her to a back rub, and finally snuggle in bed with her to watch The Notebook. Adam will get a “Velvet Hat Trick.” Yep, girls want intimacy, while all guys want are spectacular and exotic sex acts. Urgh.
Rules of Engagement does try to complicate this stereotypical gendered positioning, largely by allowing Jennifer a certain amount of pre-Adamic sexual agency and license. When he explains, via note, the “Velvet Hat Trick,” she quips, “That’s not how I do it.” Girl’s got a past, one that causes much ado in Episode Three, “Young and Restless.” Here the couple squabbles over the detritus of past relationships that clutter their new cohabitation. This begins over the larger, queen-sized bed Adam retrieves out of storage, a bed he purchased with a previous girlfriend. Jennifer insists she can’t sleep in it, then notes that it’s great that though she can’t deal with that ex-girlfriend, he can deal with “all of the guys” in her past. Oops. Poor Adam, his fragile ego can barely stand the numberless male masses looming before him in his imagination. Jennifer, as Jeff and Russell repeatedly remind him, got game.
Rules allows sexual agency for women, but tends to rescind that possibility in its marriage-promotion message. If girls in Rules of Engagement want to maintain autonomy, sexual and otherwise, they’d best not get engaged.