CBS is keeping it real. Thanks, CBS. While TV comedy is getting good again, the network has decided it's time to resurrect the groan-inducing clichés of stinky sitcoms to remind us of just how truly rancid the genre can get. "Rules of Engagement" is the name of CBS's new Neanderthal-com, in which love is nothing more than a battlefield (shout out, Pat Benatar ), marriage is what men get tricked into, and sex is the female weapon of choice.
In "Rules of Engagement," which slouches toward us tonight at 9:30 on Channel 4, a woman can manipulate her man into going to an art gallery -- so gay! -- with but a shake of her booty. Controlling Married Woman can even make Beaten-Down Married Man get a pet cat against his will. Why, asks Clueless Engaged Man, did you let the wife have her way? "Do you have a biology textbook around here anywhere?" is Beaten-Down Married Man's answer.
Sometimes sitcom characters are funny because they're so superficial -- everyone on "Seinfeld," for instance. But the guys on "Rules" aren't objects of ridicule because of their attitudes toward women and marriage; at times, I think, we're even meant to sympathize with them -- such as when Controlling Married Woman exclaims, "If you sell my bicycle, you will never ever see me naked again." "Rules of Engagement" is a buddy sitcom, but its three male stars have no chemistry. Patrick Warburton is Jeff, who is married and miserable. Oliver Hudson is Adam, who is newly engaged and feeling like he is going to be miserable. And David Spade is Russell, who is single and slutty and hoping to make all the needy women he sleeps with miserable. The three actors seem to be in different shows, and their characters don't appear to have anything in common, except the subject of sex. After Russell has his sexual escapades, he shares details with his pals, whose sex lives have been, or are about to be, replaced by "Late Show With David Letterman " (a CBS self-plug).
As Russell, Spade brings on the snark, of course; he can't not be a crank yanker, and he has mastered the art of being simultaneously annoying and witty. But the "Rules" material is so unremarkable, he's simply annoying. Hudson, meanwhile, tries to be innocent and a little dumb; the result is a Ken doll who's blander than Uneeda Biscuits.
The biggest waste on the show is Warburton, who made an indelible imprint as Puddy on "Seinfeld" and later in a good but quickly cancel ed Fox sitcom called "The Tick. " Warburton is trying to play a bummed-out husband on "Rules," but, with his heavy eyelids and monotonous delivery, he just seems drugged. I guess if I had to work such unimaginative material, I'd mope, too.