Providing further evidence that execution trumps premise every time, “Rules of Engagement” covers virtually the same territory as Fox’s dreary “‘Til Death” in a far livelier and funnier manner, buoyed by Patrick Warburton’s dry-to-the-bone turn as the 12-years-married guy to Oliver Hudson’s just-engaged neighbor. David Spade triangulates the stages-of-romance field as a bar-trawling sleazebag, and even he’s less annoying than usual, with two of the first three episodes revealing an assured, risque, semi-cynical air that should dovetail nicely with “Two and a Half Men,” even versus muscular competition from “24” and “Heroes.”
Adam (Hudson) has somewhat impulsively proposed to Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich), but his enthusiasm and dreams of a passionate lifelong romp are rained on by Jeff (Warburton), who gloomily sad-sacks his way through the highs and lows of marriage to Audrey (Megyn Price).
“We’ve sort of wrapped up the sex portion of the marriage,” he deadpans to Adam. “It’s been replaced by Letterman.”
Adam’s friends include Spade’s Russell, who’s all about getting laid and, approaches the suggestion of commitment with tangible scorn. He also has considerable fun baiting the towering Warburton, whom he refers to at various times as a “friendly giant” and “Magilla.”
Written by Tom Hertz (most recently of “Freddie”) and directed by Andy Ackerman (the “Seinfeld” alum whose feather-filled headdress includes the sitcom that “Rules” supplants, the consistently amusing “The New Adventures of Old Christine”), “Rules,” like “Two and a Half Men,” is raunchy and more than a little sex obsessed. That peaks in the second installment when Jeff speaks mysteriously of his “birthday deal,” something Audrey does for him every year, triggering speculation by Jeff and Russell. There’s also a clever bit in this early batch of episodes where Adam and Jennifer begin fretting about the notches on their respective bedposts.
Warburton, his eyes narrow slits and voice a low rumble, makes the best use of his lovable-lug assets since the short-lived and underappreciated live-action version of “The Tick.” Price proves a good match, and Kajlich is highly appealing as Jennifer — sexy and energetic in an extremely natural way.
As for cautionary flags, Hudson’s “What am I getting into?” reaction to virtually every situation already begins to feel a trifle repetitious, and the third episode (in which Jeff tests his dating chops after Audrey challenges him) is notably weaker, though the cast still musters a few moments.
Perhaps the best news for CBS is that “Rules” feels like a more natural bridge from “Men” into “CSI: Miami,” provided that the inevitable blitz of Super Bowl promos can lure viewers (and especially men) into the tent. If nothing else, the Eye net continues to be the only web stoking the fading embers of traditional multicamera sitcoms, as NBC (with some success) and ABC (without much) have shifted their focus toward single-camera film.
Whatever the format, half-hours won’t bounce back until more of them engage the first rule of comedy: Be funny.