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November 20, 2007 |

By Ted Boynton | TV | November 20, 2007 |

After I turned in my review of Lone Star and the first Boozehound Cinephile Guide — yes, I said “first”; did someone mention Withnail & I? — Beloved Leader Dustin started making little comments. Nothing over-the-top; just the odd passive-aggressive snip: “So you like Swingers. That’s deep.” Or, “It must be great just writing about quality cinema all the time.” Or, “What did you think of the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ recap … bitch?”

Well, fine. Pajiba is about the scathing and the bitchy, and today I turn the hose on myself and my dark secret: Sometimes I sneak home early from work, mix up a Vesper, and cue up the upstairs TiVo, where I record my programs that the missus just can’t tolerate: “South Park,” “Human Giant” and the like. And on that TiVo is my secret shame: CBS sitcom “Rules of Engagement.”

For those lucky enough not to know, “Rules of Engagement” — “RoE” for the cool kids — is a slice of well-masticated sitcom pie, pulled straight from the everlasting “Friends” icebox and now enjoying a second season after its February 2007 premiere. “RoE” follows an ensemble of New York City denizens plugging along in various stages of romantic relationships. Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price play a late-30s married couple, as-of-yet childless but firmly settled into familiar, easily ridiculed married life. As the show kicks off, recently engaged Oliver Hudson and Bianca Kajlich (both formerly of “Dawson’s Creek”) form a couples’ friendship with Warburton and Price after moving into their building. Warburton and Hudson are also chums with confirmed bachelor and abuser of women’s trust Russell (David Spade), whose rotating one-night stands help catalyze the ol’ joke converter.

“RoE” is, in many ways, every bit as dire as the foregoing description suggests. The flaws in this risk-free, by-the-numbers exercise are readily apparent: the recycled gender humor, the grating laugh track, the painful moments of inter-gender cute … it can be a tad much. To beef up the indictment, “RoE’s” lead-in is “Two and a Half Men,” so one can surmise the network’s opinion of the intellect required to appreciate “RoE.” The target demographic appears to consist of lobotomy patients for whom eating paint chips is a welcome diversion from searching for UFO signals in their own drool patterns. And don’t even get me started on the dreadful theme song. Oy, the humanity.

Despite the shitcom trappings, however, “RoE” has unexpected “oomph.” Exhibits A, B and C: You just can’t go wrong with Patrick Warburton. Anything featuring The Tick automatically gets a look, which is how I ended up in this nowhere relationship in the first place. Warburton is such a likeable, barrel-chested lug that his impeccable comic timing and drily sneered one-liners continue to surprise all these years later. Much of the show’s charm comes from the genuinely funny discussions among the boys at a nearby diner where Warburton holds court, educating Hudson about marriage and ridiculing Spade’s pathetic whoring. (Unlike George, Elaine, and Kramer, Puddy apparently escaped “Seinfeld” with a handful of magic beans.)

Warburton and Price also provide a steady supply of droll but pinchy observations about marital bliss. “RoE” gives a warm, humorous picture of the compromises required and comforts afforded once a couple figures out what marriage is really all about: trying not to annoy the hell out of each other and once in a while really coming through for the other person.

Another selling point is “RoE’s” departure from the spate of Mr.-Tubby-marries-Hottie-McHottiepants fantasies: “The King of Queens,” “According to Jim,” “Still Standing,” et al. Not only are Price and Warburton a good physical match, both are weight-appropriate, non-glam people you might meet at work or on the street. Even better, female leads Price and Kajlich have healthy female physiques that don’t hint at acid-eaten tooth enamel. Price is a full-figured gal in the most loving sense of that phrase, and Kajlich, while quite pretty, sports a womanly spread in the rear area. Her character is more real and likeable for that — ol’ Ted loves some good Party Platform! — just as Warburton’s slight gut literally and figuratively fleshes out his character. Hudson is a bit of a pretty boy, but haven’t we all had to kick that guy’s ass once or twice in real life? By and large, they seem pretty much like real folk.

Which brings us to David Spade, whose certificate of deposit with Satan apparently has not matured. The phrase “long in the tooth” comes to mind seeing Spade in this role, though his age-inappropriate horndoggery provides some of the funniest bits for his character. His star has faded, but honor is due our scathing, bitchy forebears. Spade was a snark pioneer in his “SNL” and Tommy Boy days, and his celebrity gossip segment during “SNL’s” Weekend Update was the forerunner of “The Soup” and other fame-whore bitch-slaps too numerous to count. When the Museum of Smartass History inducts its initial class, Spade will be a first ballot shoo-in, and “RoE” uses him appropriately, limiting his screen time and generally putting him in safe situations bouncing off Warburton and Hudson.

Sometimes a few unambitious positives are enough: some pretty good jokes delivered with panache by actors I like, along with a large drink and the smoldering remains of last night’s fattie. “RoE” is my inconsiderate boyfriend who brays about how cool he is, double-dips his chips, and rests his hand inside his belt as we sit on the sofa. Once a week I let him have sex with me anyway because of his predilection for making snide, amusing comments.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. PaddyDog may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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