In moving recently from ABC to CBS, this sitcom has made a few changes. Davis Rules still centers on Dwight Davis, a blandly affable grade-school principal played by Randy Quaid, and his irascible, loopy father, Gunny — a role for which Jonathan Winters won an Emmy last year. But gone is Dwight’s girlfriend, played by the subtle Patricia Clarkson. A new regular has been added: Bonnie Hunt (Grand), as Dwight’s sister Gwen; so far, Hunt’s acting has hinted that she is every bit as sly as Clarkson was, but she has been given scant opportunity to prove it — what does this series have against letting its female characters be funny?
Rules has also introduced a teenage character named Skinner, who is living with the Davises while his parents explore South America for a year (don’t bother trying to follow that — it’s goofy sitcom plotting). As played by the blithe Vonni Ribisi, Skinner is one of the rare smart-aleck TV teens who actually seems smart, not bratty, and his crinkly eyes would seem to lend him heartthrob potential.
The fine-tuned Rules seems a bit sharper and more quickly paced, but a likable show isn’t necessarily a very funny show; this is one situation comedy in which more attention is being paid to the situation when it’s the comedy that needs beefing up. As has been true since the show made its debut last year, Quaid’s natural comedic talents are suppressed in order to emphasize Winters’ muttered dementia. No matter how bland the episode, there are always a few funny seconds that seem to come right off the top of Winters’ head. Gwen will ask Gunny if he remembers a certain boy she used to date, and Winters will break into a blissful grin as he slides in a surreal image: ”Oh sure, the young fella who used to stick political buttons in his forehead, right?” The rest of the cast, dazed but happy, just nods. So do we. B-