I'm not the only critic guilty of this sin, but I'll still confess: It often happens that if I watch a pilot and I don't like the show, I'll never ever watch it again. Shocking, I know. And on the basis of that small one-or-two episode sampling of the show, I'll make it the butt of repeated punchlines, unaware if the show has improved dramatically since I last sampled it. 

Honestly, "According to Jim" may have become Moliere in the years since I last tuned in and I wouldn't have a clue. 

[Has it?]

And it isn't like it's outside of the realm of possibility for a show to begin lame and improve. I hated "Big Bang Theory" when I first saw it. Detested it. Because it was paired with "How I Met Your Mother," I kept watching and it has evolved into a show I occasionally (but not always) love. 

In early 2007, I watched the first three episodes of "Rules of Engagement" and I've mocked it ever since. It turns out that even though I've never met any of them, "Rules of Engagement" has fans and the comedy returns for its third season on Monday (March 2). 

[That's "third season" with a heck of an asterisk, as Season One had only seven episodes and the second season had only 15, so really this might as well be the start of the show's second season.]

A publicist sent me the season's first two episodes and that gave me the opportunity to do something that I rarely get (or choose) to do: I gave "Rules of Engagement" a a second chance.

[The results of this experiment after the bump...]

When "Rules of Engagement" premiered, it played as a carbon copy of FOX's "'Til Death," another show featuring a long-married pair serving as role models and a cautionary tale for an optimistic fresh couple. Despite dreadful ratings and an absence of critical support, "'Til Death" remains alive, though the younger couple, the characters played by Eddie Kaye Thomas and Kat Foster, ceased to be relevant and then they ceased to exist.

Revisiting "Rules of Engagement," it's a marvel CBS' show hasn't continued to follow that "'Til Death" blueprint. 

Or perhaps it is.

The season's first two episodes focus almost exclusively on Jeff and Audrey, married for 12 years and played by Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price. Anchored by Warburton's comic timing and Price's well-honed word-weary patience, Jeff and Aubrey are, periodically, funny. And even though I'm not married myself, I can sense that there's a certain measure of truth  to the way they handle this latest phase of their marriage.  If nothing else, the two actors have a rapport and even if there isn't any freshness to their interactions, there's a sweetness and familiarity to the way they relate. 

Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich weren't really comedic actors when they were cast (unless you really valued Kajlich's work in "Rock Me Baby") and they haven't found any spark, nor has their relationship progressed since the pilot. In the premiere, they're stuck in the B-story, learning dancing for their wedding. In the second episode, I may be forgetting something, but I don't think they share a single scene together and Hudson and Kajlich are passing in and out of supporting plots. 

If "Rules of Engagement" ever had any desire to parallel the two relationships of different durations, that desire is gone. The title has mostly ceased to has any meaning, as the Jeff/Audrey pairing does nothing to inform the Adam/Jen relationship and their plotlines only intersect incidentally. If they no longer are central to the show's theme, it's hard to know why Hudson and Kajlich are still around. Certainly their absence would produce no dimished laughter. I guess they're sticking around to woo the younger demo, or at least as eye candy, since Kajlich's cleavage almost deserves supporting billing at this point. 

The show's X-factor is David Spade, whose Russell started off as a poor man's version of Neil Patrick Harris' Barney from "HIMYM" and has evolved into something far sadder and less well-defined. He's there in case any moment becomes too clever or sentimental and should thus require a gay joke or a handjob punchline. 

Unlike Barney, though, Russell's quipping and womanizing come across as pathetic. Barney may have been all about the ladies and the catch phrases in the beginning, but he was industrious and engaged and excited by the possibilities of his empty, hedonistic lifestyle (he's obviously evolved and deepened). Russell is just an obsequious slacker who has been allowed to remain a part of the four main characters' lives, perhaps only because of how stable and upstanding he makes them look. Barney might annoy you, but you can understand why the "HIMYM" gang kept him around, but Russell is just a pest. 

I'm going to say something weird here: Spade is capable of better, if the writers would only give him better material. The season premiere informs us that Russell is a closet musical theater fanatic and the character's explanation for his passion verges on sympathetic.

If "Rules of Engagement" were to jettison Hudson and Kajlich and allow Jeff and Audrey to refocus their energies into turning Russell into a man, "My Fair Lady"-style (perhaps with conflicting ideas of what that would entail), the resulting sitcom would actually have potential, I think.

The show doesn't do badly by its guest stars, at least. Other than Warburton, the funniest parts in the season-opening episodes are played by the ever-reliable Bob Odenkirk and talented "Aliens in America" star Adhir Kalyan. Odenkirk and Kalyan's ability to get laughs was just another sign of how stymied the writers are when it comes to Hudson and Kajlich. 

Although I didn't discover a new-found love for "Rules of Engagement," this wasn't a bad game, giving a second shot to an established show I'd abandoned. Any suggestions on other shows I ought to re-view?

 

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