Complete Second Season
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Reviewed by Will Harris
he first season of “8 Simple Rules” served as John Ritter’s return to the sitcom, playing a newspaper columnist who works at home and tries to be the best possible husband and father of three kids. It was a remarkably accurate portrayal of the chasms that exist between parents and their children, not to mention between a husband and a wife. Sadly, however, the series’ second season had barely gotten underway – only four episodes had been filmed – when Ritter took ill on the set, was rushed to the hospital, and subsequently died as a result of an aortic dissection caused by a previously undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
When watching “8 Simple Rules: The Complete Second Season,” you may find that you’re never completely caught up in the humor of those first four episodes, so distracted are you by the knowledge that, in short order, the character of Paul Hennessey (Ritter) will soon be dead. What you do find yourself caught up in, however, is the grieving process which permeates the remainder of the season.
You don’t need to have lost a spouse or a parent to find yourself on the verge of tears when watching “Goodbye,” where we learn that Paul went on an errand – Cate (Katey Sagal) had asked him to pick up some milk – and never came home. Some have argued that “8 Simple Rules” jumped the shark when the show decided to go on beyond Ritter’s death, but given his long tenure as a sitcom star, one cannot argue against the producers’ decision to allow viewers the opportunity to grieve with them. The pall over the proceedings is palpable, in no small part due to the decision to go sans laugh track, and it’s almost painful to watch funny guys like Larry Miller and Patrick Warburton reprise their characters from Season One, but have to do so in mournful mode. Beyond the funeral, the family members spend much of the episode steeling themselves to look through Paul’s desk and computer to find his final column, and when they begin the sad process but end up swallowed up by their memories of the good times, it feels as real as any sitcom has ever felt.
The feeling of reality in that episode doesn’t immediately depart when the closing credits roll, however. The kids have to return to school and deal with the way their friends treat them, with Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) and Kerry (Amy Davidson) having different reactions to the situation. On Thanksgiving, Cate starts to become aware of how many “firsts” she’s going to have to endure, i.e. the first Thanksgiving without Paul, etcetera. And poor Rory (Martin Spanjers) begins to struggle with the realization that he no longer has his father around to provide him with advice. Fortunately, he’s provided with a new male role model almost immediately. It was a wise move to bring a few new yet familiar faces into the mix, the first being James Garner as Cate’s father, Jim Egan. Jim and Cate’s mother, Laura (Suzanne Pleshette), are separated, but they nonetheless arrive together to support their daughter in her time of need; as a result, he’s able to stick around and help his daughter out as she begins to adapt to her new situation. Later in the season, David Spade turns up as Cate’s nephew, CJ, a wayward soul with a shitty van and an even shitter future outlook, serving as equal parts good and bad influence to the kids. Garner and Spade obviously don’t bring the same kind of humor to the show that Ritter did, but they’re both great comedians, and they spar well together.
As you watch “8 Simple Rules: The Complete Second Season,” you may feel that it doesn’t deserve the four stars it’s received here. Granted, it does have some very traditional sitcom moments as the season progresses and gets into its new rhythm, and the jokes certainly aren’t all knee-slappers, but it’s hard not to grade the show on a curve, weighing very heavily on the way it handled the death of a character. Paul Hennessey may have died, but his presence is everywhere in this season. The greatest moment, however, occurs during the two-part episode entitled “Let’s Keep Going,” in which the family battles over whether they should continue their annual visit to the family cabin or not. (If you watched Season One, then you know that Paul was the only one who liked going to the place.) Cate recalls that, as they were leaving the cabin once, Paul emerged with his hand wrapped in a towel. It seems that he had attempted to carve “HENNESSEY” into the wall, behind one of the paintings, but that he’d promptly cut his hand with the knife before even finishing the second letter. As the family stands together in the cabin, Cate removes the painting and sees the extent of his work: “HI.”
When Kerry’s face begins to crumple as she says, “Hi, Dad,” it’s truly a TV moment for the ages – and one that, somehow, you know John Ritter would’ve been proud of.
Special Features: In our review of the Season One set, we acknowledged our surprise at the lack of a formal tribute to Ritter, adding, “We hope we can take that to mean it’s being saved for the DVD set of the show’s second season.” Sadly, that’s not the case. At least we got a 10-minute blooper reel on the previous set. This time, we get no bonus material at all. How depressing.