If ever a series cried out to be judged on something other than its pilot, it’s this spring tryout comedy that starts off being dreadful but progresses to the level of merely semi-contrived in its second episode. Even so, “House Rules” comes packaged suspiciously like the second coming (or is it the third or fourth?) of “Three’s Company.” The twist: This time it’s two guys and a woman living chastely under the same roof.
The back story is that executive producer Chris Thompson had only a few days to whip together the pilot with writers Adam Hamburger and Charlie Richards, and it shows. The show is a glorification of human immaturity, celebrating young men who never grew up and the women who avoid them — all except for the one who lives with them, of course. In the opener, even the laugh track has trouble finding inspiration.
Set in Denver — whose thin air evidently has a constricting effect on male brain synapses — “House Rules” stars the Smurf-like Maria Pitillo (“Chaplin,” “Godzilla”) as Casey Farrell, a deputy district attorney with a pretty-boy stockbroker boyfriend (Jeff Yagher) who has one-episode-and-out written all over him. Keeping Casey company are a couple of sarcastic, twentysomething male roommates (Bradley White, David Newsom) who remain gleefully stuck in life’s first gear.
Don’t even ask why a deputy DA needs two roomies, much less guys. Evidently, they all grew up together. Because they’re so tight, any outside romance is viewed as a threat to their sexless menage a trois. One of the guys is a med student, the other a reporter. Grown-ups live like this — and have relationships this interdependent — only on TV.
Story goes nowhere fast in the premiere as Casey acts alternately tough and coquettish and the dudes struggle to figure out a way to scare off her latest suitor (telling him, “She just stopped taking the pill” seems to do the trick). Yet she’s going to follow the guy to Paris anyway, until something typically implausible intervenes. Even an energetic cameo from “Melrose Place’s” Lisa Rinna can’t do much to save the story.
Things pick up markedly in episode two, however, thanks primarily to the arrival of Patrick Warburton (Elaine’s wonderfully eccentric boyfriend Puddy on “Seinfeld”) as the deadpan Officer Dan. His sharp comic timing and off-kilter style bring to “House Rules” the endearing veneer of absurdity that it earlier lacks.
If Warburton doesn’t stick around, the future of the series (subbing for “Fired Up” on the NBC sked) would appear dim, though Pitillo sports an undeniable radiance. In fact, the half-hour would be better served by bagging the two wiseguys altogether and focusing on Pitillo and Warburton, a divertingly oddball couple in the making.
Michael Lembeck lends his usual tight direction. Tech credits shine.