Giving Rules of Engagement a Fair Chance

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Open Mind is a weekly series in which Josh Kurp takes a look at shows that we wouldn’t normally cover, to see whether they’re as bad (or occasionally, as good) as people say. This week: Rules of Engagement.

We’ve all been delighting in the antics of Two and a Half Men star Charlie Sheen over the past months, wondering how far he can go. To where, I’m not sure, but it’s an amusing ride still — or at least it was until yesterday, when the actor appeared on The Alex Jones Radio Show. Among other choice excerpts, Sheen said, “I’m an F-18 bro and I will destroy you in the air,” and later called Thomas Jefferson a “wimp.” Clearly, the man’s going insane, but things took an awkward turn when Sheen intentionally referred to Men’s creator/producer Charles “Chuck” Lorre as Chaim Levine, poking fun at his Jewish background.

Needless to say, Sheen’s (s)hit show is now on hiatus, definitely for the rest of the season and possibly for good. One’s man insanity is the rest of the world’s guilt-ridden happiness. But as overjoyed as the Twitter community was (and still is) about the announcement, there’s an even happier group out there: the cast and crew of Rules of Engagement.

To fill a scheduling gap, CBS announced in January that two extra episodes of the Patrick Warburton and David Spade-starring Engagement were being ordered, bringing the season total to 26, a pretty impressive achievement for a show that began as a mid-season replacement in February 2007 and wasn’t added to the fall schedule until last year. The show also now has a new, cushy timeslot at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, right after The Big Bang Theory. But is the Little Show That Could, as the L.A. Times recently called it, any good? Holy Christ no.

Rules of Engagement is about, unsurprisingly, couples. One’s newly engaged (played by Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich), one’s been together for awhile (Warburton and Megyn Price), and the other’s David Spade (David Spade). The series was created by Tom Hertz (Spin City, Married to the Kellys) and produced by Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison Productions, which should give you an indication for the type of show it is. Imagine a New York-set Grown Ups spread out over five seasons. There are manchilds with gorgeous wives, jokes about how amusing foreigners are, potentially funny gags that go on for way too long (particularly one about the right way to eat spaghetti), and men worried more about jet skis and cheese than they are their devoted partners.

One of the plots in last night’s episode, “Jeff Day,” had Price’s character, Audrey, begin her new job at an unnamed startup company online, and would you believe it, these kids who work for the Internet sit on rubber balls, have ping-pong tables in their office, and don’t seem like they’re really working! What’s next, no cubicles? (Yeah, that happened, too). Many of Sandler’s comedies, or at least comedies that his production company handles, are incredibly out-of-date, not in the sense of the comedy world mostly being beyond guy-gets-hit-in-the-nuts jokes, but rather culturally behind the times. I’m pretty sure no one’s made fun of Internet startups being in lofts, rather than a traditional office, in about seven years. I, for one, can’t wait until Rules of Engagement tackles this social media thing I’ve heard so much.

The Jeff in “Jeff Day” is Warburton, who’s still most well-known as David Puddy on Seinfeld, or maybe Family Guy’s Joe Swanson (although he’s probably best as The Tick in Fox’s short-lived sitcom of the same name). While Seinfeld knew to use Puddy in very small doses (according to Wikipedia, he only appeared in 10 episodes, which is kind of amazing actually), because otherwise his Stanley Kowalski ways would quickly become stale, Rules of Engagement doesn’t have the same restraint. Although Jeff has a good life with a nice apartment, devoted friends, and a gorgeous wife, he decides that he wants a day to himself, a “Jeff Day,” if you will — no distractions, no work, and especially no women. Because obviously women are the cause of all frustrations for us manly men; why won’t you just leave us alone to drink beer and wear dirty clothes?!? Things, of course, go wrong, including misunderstanding (a word that’s probably in the plot description of every episode) with Jeff giving $20 to the non-English speaking cleaning LADY to take her shirt off.

Speaking of hating on women: let’s talk about David Spade, who plays slimy sex addict Russell Dunbar on Rules of Engagement. He’s Barney Stinson, minus the charm, wit, delivery, and nice suits, the perviest of perverts. I still think of Spade as the Stan Laurel to Chris Farley’s Hardy in Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, where he played the straight man, often simply reacting to the antics of his partner. Then, for some reason, possibly because of Farley’s passing in 1997, Spade switched gears, and went from Normal Guy to Creep, in various forms: there’s Redneck Creep (Joe Dirt), Has-Been Creep (Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star), Assistant Creep (Just Shoot Me!), and, most recently, Adam Sandler Creep (Grandma’s Boy, The Benchwarmers, and Grown Ups), where he often plays the part of a sex fiend, his role in Rules. Russell’s “official” Twitter account is a good indication of his humor: “It’s not the size of the wand, it’s the skill of the magician” and “Tough day at the office. Maybe I should get a massage after my ‘massage’ tonight.” To paraphrase Marge Simpson, Spade turned into a hardcore sex addict so quickly, I didn’t even notice. But now that I have, I really wish I hadn’t.

The closest relationship Russell has with anyone outside the bedroom is with his assistant, Timmy, played by Adhir Kalyan. They have a love-hate relationship, meaning that while Russell loves to make fun of him, Timmy just hates his boss. In “Jeff Day,” Timmy’s asked to come up with a list of insults for Russell to use on him after feeling that his own “Lawrence of Agaybia” didn’t hurt as much as it should have. I guess this is a recurring joke because according to IMDb, after Timmy invited Russell to join his a cappella group, something Scrubs and many others shows have already done, Timmy makes some pun about a-capella and Al-Qaeda. It’s especially funny because Kalyan’s family is Indian South African, including his mother, an actual member of Parliament.

After watching two pretty awful CBS sitcoms for this column in a row, I’m wondering a) how How I Met Your Mother, one of the more underappreciated comedies on TV, made it to the network, and b) do only straight, white men who love sports watch these kinds of shows? The only thing worse and more embarrassing than Rules of Engagement’s relationship with women is the way they’ve pictured people like me: a straight, white man who loves sports.

Josh Kurp will cover a show not on CBS next week.