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Tuned In: ABC execs high on Ritter's 'Rules'

Saturday, July 20, 2002

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne tapped the new John Ritter sitcom "8 Simple Rules ..." as the network's best hope for success this fall.

She's right. Based on the book "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenager Daughter," by W. Bruce Cameron, the sitcom is cute, knowing and relates to parents of teens and the kids themselves. It's a prototypical comedy in the ABC tradition.

But getting that notice from a network president also adds to expectations.

"It's great that we have high hopes and it's up to the audience at this point," said executive producer Flody Suarez. "It's just a nice pat on the back."

"It's better to have this kind of buzz than the other kind of buzz," said Katey Sagal, who plays Ritter's wife.

In the show, Ritter and Sagal are parents of a son and two teen-age daughters: Bridget (Kaley Cuoco) is a beauty queen and Kerry (Amy Davidson) is a little more sullen. The girls vex their father continually, whether it's their attitude or the skimpy clothes they wear.

"The problem is that he's trying to keep his kids safe, and he's overly worried and overly protective and he doesn't trust any teen-age boy alive except his son," Ritter said. "The thing that separates this script is that a lot of scripts I read are where the kids are bitching at the father and the father is angry at the kids. With Kaley, when she's dumped at the mall by a boy, he sees her as a teen-ager but also as a little girl and then a real young girl, and that happens with me and my kids."

Cuoco, who is 16, said the character rings true.

"I know with friends of mine, we all try and break the rules sometimes," Cuoco said. "Everybody likes to test your parents' judgment, but basically I've learned over the years to not completely cross that line because I seem to get in trouble every single time."

The issue of teen-agers and sex comes up in the pilot episode, which included two references to condoms. Only one mention will make it to air, and producers said Bridget probably will be more bark than bite.

"I think there are interesting episodes in the squeaky wheel gets the grease," said executive producer Tracy Gamble. "He's more worried about Bridget because look how provocative she is."

The goal is to remain family-friendly.

"Tracy writes with great heart and he writes a dad's angst and anguish over these things," Suarez said. "If we do tackle [issues of sex], it will be done from that voice."

Gamble, who worked on "Home Improvement," said he aims for the same balance between issues and less controversial content as in that series.

"We're somewhere down the middle of the fairway," Gamble said. "We're not as heavy as 'Roseanne' ... No pun intended."

As for the eight simple rules of the title, Ritter joked they'll be revealed -- slowly.

"Every season, at the end of the season, we are going to reveal one rule."

'Becker' changes

Some viewers expressed dismay when word leaked out that actress Terry Farrell was dismissed from the CBS comedy "Becker," but producers said it had nothing to do with her performance. They simply saw an opportunity to send the sitcom in a fresh direction.

"When you get to year five of a show, you're looking for a way to shake up the show, something new to write about," said series creator Dave Hackel. Indeed, his original plan was to keep Farrell's Reggie, and "Becker" would be back where it had always been. "I thought, 'Well, what would happen if I did just the opposite? What would happen if he went where no one expects him to go?' And stories started to happen. ... I decided to do what dramas do all the time: Shake up the cast."

Part of the impetus was the time slot shift from Monday to Sunday nights. Producers knew they'd have to do something to get attention from the media and viewers; bouncing Farrell and bringing in Nancy Travis as Becker's new neighbor was one way to do it.

Hackel said he opted not to keep both characters because he didn't want to create a love triangle for Becker.

"If you have two strong women that you have to service, not just financially but with the script, the show begins to be weighted in the wrong direction," Hackel said. "It would turn the show into something different."

Travis' character, who first appeared in a three-episode arc last season, might become a love interest for Becker, but it won't come easily.

"If he's attracted to her, that doesn't mean that she's attracted back and vice versa," Hackel said. "We've just never seen John Becker pursue something. We've never seen him want something that badly. And it's not going to work. He can't bully his way into this situation. She won't allow it. She's too smart for him. It's given us new possibilities."

Actress Hattie Winston, a "Becker" co-star, said she was surprised by the casting change, but she's not concerned.

"I absolutely trust our producers," she said. "I haven't had a chance to speak to [Farrell] yet. It was a concern of mine that she be fine, and I'm told she is."

Series star Ted Danson said the move made creative sense.

"I don't think 'Cheers' would have lasted as long as it did if there hadn't been a seat change like that," Danson said. "It energizes the show."

Danson, who appeared in the "Three Men and a Baby" movies with Travis, said there's a simple reason he's back on TV -- his movie career didn't work out.

"Failure. Box office nose-diving films," Danson said. "It would be wonderful to be a fabulous movie star. But my really, really, really by myself truth is I like being home. I do love this format. I do love making people laugh. ... My ego sometimes goes, 'You know, I wish I were fabulous.' But my real truth is I love what I'm doing."

Danson said he'd be game for a "Cheers" reunion if it was done right, not just as an episode of "Frasier." There was another reason he didn't show up in May's reunion of "Cheers" stars on "Frasier": "I got rid of my hairpieces. I had absolutely nothing to wear."

'Donahue' MIA in city

Several viewers have called to complain because they can't find the new "Donahue" show. There's a simple reason: AT&T Broadband doesn't carry MSNBC, the home of Phil Donahue's new 8 p.m. weeknight talk show, in the city of Pittsburgh, although it is available in the suburbs.

Residents can request that MSNBC be added to their cable lineup by calling AT&T at 412-771-8100.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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