NEW YORK – When John Ritter (search) died a few weeks ago, his ABC sitcom seemed doomed as well. But pausing only long enough for a drastic but delicate makeover, "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" (search) was back Tuesday night to confront Ritter's tragic absence and the death of the character he played.
The hour-long episode began with the usual domestic foolishness as the Hennessy household began an ordinary hectic morning. Then, preparing breakfast, wife Cate (Katey Sagal (search)) and the three teenagers got a fateful phone call: Patriarch Paul Hennessy (Ritter's character), who had dashed out to buy milk, had died of a heart attack at the grocery.
After a commercial break, preparations for the funeral were under way as Cate's parents arrived.
"Can I get you something?" asked Cate's mom (played by Suzanne Pleshette).
"Yesterday would be nice," Cate replied.
Pleshette and fellow guest star James Garner , as Cate's dad, are on hand for several episodes to serve "8 Simple Rules..." in somewhat the same way as their characters: Lending support as the Hennessy family makes the transition to life without Paul, the harried dad and newspaper columnist played by Ritter, the show's much-loved star.
The two veteran TV favorites did the trick, lending a comfortable presence, particularly with their intermittent bickering: This feisty couple have long been separated.
During the hour in various combinations, all the characters grieved, reminisced and paid tribute — and what they said often seemed to apply as much to Ritter as Paul Hennessy.
While his gramps did an emergency repair on the upstairs toilet, son Rory (Martin Spanjers) recalled how his dad retreated to the bathroom when a column deadline was pressing.
"Once in a while Mom would knock on the door to make sure he didn't fall in," Rory said.
Then Cate sat with her daughters in a lonely bedroom.
"You know what his last words to me were? 'Hasta la vista, baby!' Such a cornball," she laughed.
"You know what I'm going to miss about Dad?" said Kerry (Amy Davidson). "Those bogus pancakes he used to make. Like eating Tupperware covers."
"Pancake mix and water!" said Bridget (Kaley Cuoco). "How do you mess that up?"
Ritter had completed three episodes for the new season when he died of a heart ailment Sept. 11. His last episode aired Oct. 7.
Gambling that a lighthearted sitcom can sustain the loss of its central figure, "8 Simple Rules..." is making a desperate bid to carry on as one of ABC's higher-rated series. Doing so, the producers and the network have risked conspicuous failure as well as criticism for tastelessness.
It's hard to say where the show might go now. But with Tuesday's lovely episode, at least, "8 Simple Rules..." made their efforts worthwhile. It rose to the sad, unsought occasion.