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TV Series Review

In the past, sitcoms ranging from Leave It to Beaver to The Cosby Show were derided for solving characters' complex problems in convenient 30-minute segments. Be that as it may, at least they resolved them. Now we have a different trend: make-up sex. Writers throw couples into turmoil, then abruptly abort the squabble as feuding partners elect to make love, not war. The implication is that passion can shift on a dime from selfishness and verbal abuse to an impulsive romp with no need for mature resolution.

That's just one of the problems with CBS' Rules of Engagement, a sexually preoccupied comedy about urban friends who view relational challenges differently according to their station of life. After a decade of marriage, Audrey and her sports-loving, beer-swilling lug of a husband, Jeff (Patrick Warburton), have settled into a groove … or a rut, depending on the episode. Across the hall lives a young, naive engaged couple, Adam and Jennifer. She's an attractive graphic designer. He's a dim bulb stuck in adolescence. To round out the group and provide a mouthpiece for singles is Russell (David Spade), an obnoxious womanizer.

Each episode features a Seinfeld-esque meeting at a local diner. There the characters compare notes about life, usually with frank discussions of sex. Storylines have centered on spontaneous erections, Russell's seduction of a 60-year-old woman, kinky activity as an annual birthday gift, and the need to determine that a future spouse's extensive sexual history is no big deal. Even when the topics are thoughtful, the treatment isn't. Instead of a sensitive look at infertility, viewers get hit with masturbation and porn jokes as Jeff has to "romance himself" at a clinic.

The sorriest soul in the bunch is Russell, though the writers seem to live vicariously through him. With a caustic air of superiority he says, "You married guys are always trying to find a flaw in my series of shallow, sex-based relationships built on lies." Such comments leave Adam and Jeff bereft of a comeback and visibly jealous. And yet other scenes assign value to committed relationships and warn spouses not to take each other for granted. One minute the show belittles marriage, the next it embraces it. Ultimately, what do its creators value? Any joke they can make at the expense of romance, and the more titillating the better.

The opening credits feature the characters in bed, cuddling between the sheets. So while we can criticize Rules of Engagement for its sleazy talk of casual hookups, threesomes, anatomy and unconventional sex, we sure can't accuse it of false advertising. Speaking of advertising, one sponsor has been the makers of Valtrex, a drug used to reduce the spread of genital herpes. Interesting partnership.

Oh, for those innocent, happy days when Howard and Marion Cunningham merely talked of "getting frisky." Now that was a sitcom, even if Richie, Joanie and The Fonz had all of their problems solved in 30 minutes.

Episodes Reviewed: Feb. 12, 19, 26, Mar. 5, 12, 2007

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Bob Smithouser

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