Patrick Warburton and Megyn Price
Every now and then, Rules of Engagement creator Tom Hertz visits the show's message board on CBS.com. Outside of the requisite "Who's hotter?" polls, there are always a dozen or so threads about the same topic.
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"'This is still on?' 'Was it canceled?' 'Is it coming back?' and so on and so forth," he tells TVGuide.com. "It's usually positive. I mean, if you take the time to log on to a website and talk about a show, you're most likely a fan. I'm sure there are places where there's negative feedback, and to each their own. But there's just a lot of confusion."
Hertz can't blame the fans for being confused. As it has for the past five years, one of CBS' most solid performers has endured another rollercoaster season. After initially getting scheduled for Saturdays in the fall — just the third time it's been slated a fall premiere — Rules was bumped to the prime post-Big Bang Theory Thursday slot after How to Be a Gentleman crashed and burned. But less than a month later, CBS cut its episode order to 13 (combined with two leftover episodes from last year, there will be 15 episodes total this season) and announced that it will pull the show midseason to make way for Rob. Rules returns Thursday with its remaining eight episodes.
"We fill in wherever they need us to fill in. I guess, after the sixth year, nothing seems crazy! I'm used to the on-and-off and last-minute changes, and I don't look at them as a slight," Hertz says. "The first order was for 22 and in my head, I was thinking, 'They might need less than that' just because of how many spots they have for new episodes. And CBS is in the business of trying to find the next big hit, so they put on that Rob show and we took a seat on the bench and watched. Ratings-wise, it fell a little below what we were doing. Now we're back. I'm like the Old West gun fighter waiting for the new kid to knock me off the box!"
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Though he's fine with the fact that Rules is a "utility player," Hertz admits he was disappointed to just do 13 episodes; the show has only ever received two full-season orders. Story-wise, he and the writers could not execute some of their planned arcs, including Jeff (Patrick Warburton) and Audrey (Megyn Pryce) welcoming their first child via their lesbian surrogate Brenda (guest star Sara Rue). The birth was originally planned for the season finale, but it's now among the six scripts sitting on their desks waiting for next season. "You can't make Episode 20 to be Episode 13 because you're already working on Episode 12," he says. "It's harder to plan out arcs, but I'm not complaining. We have a job, we got to make episodes. We just plugged away, did our work and we're proud of them and we're happy to be back and I think CBS is happy to have us back. There's just more of the fun, solid, funny relationship stuff in these last eight. I think the fans will love it."
In Thursday's episode, Jeff sends Audrey on a romantic scavenger hunt that goes awry. Future episodes include Audrey asking Jeff to make a list of five things he likes about her that cannot be related to sex, and Jennifer (Bianca Kajlich) throwing Audrey a baby shower and the baby's gender reveal in the finale. It's ordinary, relatable plots like these that Hertz believes will help the show pick up where it left off in December; at the time it was averaging a healthy 11 million viewers. "I'm just hoping we hit the same numbers we were doing for six years. Consistency is the key. ... No show improves its ratings as much as we do," Hertz says. "Things get better and then we get taken off. But fans always find us again and again. CBS does make it challenging for the fans, but that's our role as the backup and we're content to be the backup. I totally get it."
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Hertz also understands why the show was not one of the 15 CBS renewed two weeks ago and he says he's not upset that they didn't get the early nod. For one, Rules hadn't aired in three months and pilot season is also still in effect.
"You wish you could be included and get, as they say, a vote of confidence. I look at it from CBS' point of view and it's easier than being upset," he says. "They don't have to renew it and I think our renewal and how many episodes we might get depend on how their development goes. They have the four comedies Monday night and two on Thursday. There's been talk of expanding to four shows Thursday to establish what NBC had with Must-See TV. I think that would be great. NBC's shows are great and very funny, but they don't get the ratings. It's ripe for the taking. If CBS expands to four shows Thursdays, that's good for us. Again, they don't have to renew us. They can do it at the eleventh hour."
While he hasn't yet gotten indication either way, Hertz is hopeful that Rules will return next year — after all, they already have a head-start. "Knock on wood! These six [scripts] are sitting here, waiting," he says. "CBS does like us and hopefully we'll get to continue — whenever we're on!"
Rules of Engagement airs Thursdays at 8:30/7:30c on CBS.