In the immediate aftermath of John Ritter’s death, it was hard to take issue with ABC’s decisions, since execs were thrust into an untenable situation. Since then, however, there has been a vague ghoulishness surrounding the show, including big viewer tune-in for the remaining Ritter episodes and ABC News’ synergistic efforts such as Diane Sawyer’s interview with the actor’s widow, Amy Yasbeck. Predictably, if morbidly, Tuesday’s one-hour return episode drew a vast audience, bolstering ABC’s sweeps bottom line. And now, one suspects, the show will pretty quickly fade.
There was nothing surprising about this genial series in happier days, and there was nothing surprising about what one of the ratings hotlines labeled “the death episode.” The hour delivered lots of group hugs, tears and platitudes about the unfairness of such a loss, best delivered by an avuncular James Garner.
The consistent refrain from the network and cast has been “This happens to families,” which is of course true. It does not happen often, however, to light-hearted sitcom families, and incorporating the Ritter character’s passing is uncomfortable terrain.
After some playful banter among the kids reminding us what the series had been about, Cate (Katey Sagal) receives a phone call, learning that her husband Paul has collapsed at the grocery store.
Soon, Cate’s “bitterly divorced” parents, played by Garner and Suzanne Pleshette, arrive to provide moral support. As they bicker about artificial sweeteners and attending church, it’s amazing how much you found yourself missing the laughtrack, conspicuously absent from the episode.
Director James Widdoes and the four credited writers clearly sought to be sensitive, and there was something irresistibly emotional about the fictitious family’s pain given its real-life underpinnings. Still, most of the stabs at comedy felt forced, including cameos by John Ratzenberger and Patrick Warburton, expressing their condolences.
Nothing, in fact, was subtle about this hour. Each scene was connected by melancholy guitar chords, working overtime to create a properly somber tone. Similarly, the underlying plot thread — in which all the characters feel guilt about their final encounters with the family’s late patriarch — was so neatly resolved (Paul, a newspaper columnist, magically addressed their concerns through a posthumously discovered column) as to feel a bit cloying.
For the most part, Sagal pulled off the most demanding aspects of the episode, even saddled with dialogue like ‘We don’t deserve this” as she questions God about the unfairness of life.
Yet just because she cuddled up with kids at the end doesn’t mean everything’s going to be alright. Inspired by W. Bruce Cameron’s book, the series hinged on Ritter’s deft exasperation dealing with his teenagers. The re-engineered dramedy might work as a “very special episode,” but it will likely offer little allure to viewers now that they’ve seen where the show is headed. In a media culture hurtling by at an increasingly frantic pace, a percentage of the audience can be counted upon to seek out any such novelty. Their curiosity satisfied, much of America will move on, letting the made-up Hennessy family and those who loved the actual man grieve privately, offscreen.
It’s not fair, and it might not even be nice. But in the modern media, those are the rules.