"You say goodbye, and I say hello."-- Paul McCartney
"You say goodbye, and I say hello."-- Paul McCartney
It's kind of ironic, actually. Given that the special 1-hour episode of "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" that airs on ABC this evening is called "Goodbye." I mean, if you take things at face value, this show is supposedly about how the surviving members of the Hennessy clan -- wife Cate (Katey Sagal), oldest daughter Bridget (Kaley Cuoco), middle child Kerry (Amy Davidson) and youngest child Rory (Martin Spanjers) -- try to deal with the sudden death of family patriarch Paul (John Ritter).
But the fact of the matter is "Goodbye" is really all about saying "Hello." How -- in effect -- the Walt Disney Company is reintroducing us to TV viewers. With the hope that we infamously fickle folks (I.E. The television viewing audience) will eventually embrace a John Ritter-less version of this hit sitcom. Which will then prevent ABC from having to scramble to find another new show to serve as the anchor program for the network's Tuesday night line-up.
Okay. I know. That sounds a little cold blooded. But this is the way things really are in the world of TV programming. Sure, it's a safe bet to say that everyone at Disney felt truly terrible about John Ritter's tragic passing on September 11th. But it's an equally safe bet is that -- by September 12th -- Mouse House execs and ABC officials were already quietly discussing whether or not they'd be able to continue production of this hit sitcom without John.
You have to understand that -when you're talking about "show business," folks -- the most important word in that phrase is "business." Always "business." And -- given the millions that Disney and ABC already has invested in this program (Money that the corporation is only going to recoup if '8 Simple Rules" survives long enough to become successfully syndicated) as well as the hundred or more writers, actors and technical personnel who actually work on this ABC sitcom -- the Mouse felt that it had no choice. The show really did have to go on. Which is why -- just five days after Ritter's death (and less than 24 hours after John's funeral) -- ABC officials announced that production would continue on the program.
The big question then was how to replace the irreplacable John Ritter. Meaning no disrespect to Katey Sagal (Who is best known to sitcom fans for her portrayal of Peg Bundy on the long running Fox hit sitcom, "Married with Children," and as well as her great vocal work as Leela on the late, lamented "Futurama"), but the belief at the network level supposedly was that Sagal wasn't strong enough (I.E. Big enough of a star) to carry the show all by herself. So -- in order for "8 Simple Rules" to continue -- Katey was going to need someone to play off of.
Which is why -- for a time -- Disney and ABC executives reportedly toyed with the idea of hiring Henry Winkler (the ABC sitcom legend best known for his iconic performance of the Fonz on "Happy Days") as a possible replacement for Ritter. With the idea of perhaps having Henry play Paul Hennessy's brother, who moves in with the family after the funeral to help the clan get back on its feet.
From what I hear, everyone at the network level just loved the idea of replacing one 1970s sitcom star with another 1970s sitcom star. And -- given that Winkler was actually supposed to have been the guest star on the episode of "8 Simple Rules" that Ritter had been rehearsing prior to falling ill -- there was a nice symmetry to this plan.
The only problem was that Henry (who was a close friend of John's) really didn't want to replace Ritter. Nor was he up for the idea of returning to the production grind of appearing on a weekly sitcom. So that plan didn't play out.
Then -- after allegedly entertaining the notion of bringing Tony Danza on board to play a relative of Paul's -- the "8 Simple Rules" production team decided to try another tack. That maybe the best way to replace John Ritter wasn't to replace him at all.
By that I mean: Rather than bringing in a new father figure, "8 Simple Rules" would bring in an old father figure. Or -- to be more precise -- a grandfather figure. Cate's father, to be exact. So that Paul's widow and his kids could now have someone senior to bounce stuff off of. So that the show would still have some sort of a patriarch in place.
With this new concept in mind, the producers of this ABC sitcom really decide to go for broke. Since they knew that they were still -- in effect -- trying to replace sitcom legend John Ritter, the only thing that seemed to make any sense (in their effort to keep "8 Simple Rules" 's ratings intact) was to try and recruit the biggest star possible. To keep people coming back week after week to check out the show. Which is why these guys reportedly went after Disney Legend *** Van ***.
From what I've been told, Van *** was polite but firm with the "8 Simple Rules" folks. While he was flattered that they had thought to offer him this role, there was just no way that *** was willing to sign on with a weekly sitcom. (It seems that this Emmy Award winning actor is enjoying his semi-retirement so much that he doesn't wanna go back to work. Anyway ... )
But -- as it turns out -- there was one semi-retired TV vet who did really wanna go back to work: James Garner. Best known for his wry comic performances on the 1960s western, "Maverick," as well as the 1970s era detective series, "The Rockford Files," Garner agreed to take on the role. But only with the understanding that his role was just recurring. That the veteran actor wouldn't be obligated to appear in every single "8 Simple Rules" episode this season.
Okay. With one TV legend now in place, the producers of "8 Simple Rules" decided to see if they could land just one more. Which is why they pursued Suzanne Pleshette. Probably best known to Nick at Night fans for her work as Bob Hartley's wife, Emily, on the "Bob Newhart Show," Pleshette had just wrapped up a rather unpleasant year working on the struggling NBC sitcom, "Good Morning Miami." Having been unceremoniously left go from that show, Suzanne was really pleased to be offered a recurring gig on "8 Simple Rules." Where she'll be playing Jim's estranged wife, the grandmother of the Hennessy clan.
(Not that I have to tell Disneyana fans this: But -- for James Garner and Suzanne Pleshette to be returning to the Disney lot in Burbank to shoot "8 Simple Rules" -- it's really sort of a homecoming. Why for? Well, over the years, Garner has made three films for the Walt Disney Company: "One Little Indian," "The Castaway Cowboy" and "The Distinguished Gentleman." While Suzanne Pleshette has actually appeared in four Walt Disney Productions: "The Ugly Dachshund," "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin," "Blackbeard's Ghost" and "The Shaggy D.A." So -- for these Disney vets to shooting a sitcom in one of Disney's soundstages -- it must feel like Old Home week. Anyway ...)
After taking more than a month off for retooling, production of "8 Simple Rules" finally got underway again on Monday, October 20th. The first show to be shot -- as I mentioned at the start of this article -- was the 1-hour long episode entitled "Goodbye." Which will show the Hennessy family still reeling from Paul's death but slowly learning to cope. This will also be the program where Garner's grandfather and Pleshette's grandparents characters will be introduced.
Given that this program is being hyped as an "extra special episode of '8 Simple Rules,' " ABC executives are fairly certain that tonight's show should pull down a halfway decent rating. It's next week's episode -- a program that (ironically enough) is entitled "No Right Way" -- that will be the real test. This is the show where "8 Simple Rules" will return to the standard sitcom half-hour format. With no touching introductions by still grieving cast members and/or hour long guest-filled episodes to serve as an additional lure for viewers.
The November 11st episode of "8 Simple Rules" will just be your standard everyday episode. Where -- according to an ABC press release -- "Cate is unprepared for the kid's reaction on their first day back to school since Paul's death and Jim makes some questionable home improvements to the Hennessy household." Doesn't exactly sound like a laugh riot, now does it?
Well, even so, ABC executives will be closely watching the ratings of the November 11th episode of "8 Simple Rules." To see if this sitcom's audience still sticks with this show. Or if -- now this program is John Ritter-less -- this series' viewers will slowly begin to drift away. Which will leave the network's Tuesday night line-up rudder-less.