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Prime Time Comedies Get Serious After Ritter’s Death
Above: Laugh tracks were suddenly silenced when John Ritter joined the great gig in the sky

LOS ANGELES, Calif. (SP) — The day that veteran actor John Ritter died from a rare congenital heart defect may soon be known as the day that situation comedies died on prime time television.

Ritter’s sudden tragic death left executives at ABC in a quandary, having built their entire prime time lineup around “8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter,” the popular sophomore sitcom starring Ritter. ABC seriously considered canceling the show, but instead decided to write the death of Ritter’s character into the storyline.

The fact that the season premiere of 8 Simple Rules was the highest rated show on television has inspired the producers of other popular sitcoms to introduce more serious storylines in the hopes of achieving similar ratings. The following are just a few of the more dramatic directions being taken by some of America’s best-loved sitcoms:

My Wife and Kids: Life will never be the same for the Kyle family after Michael (Damon Wayans) is convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 8-10 years at San Quentin’s maximum security prison.

With Michael no longer able to financially support his family, the bank immediately forecloses on their mortgage, and the family is forced to move into more affordable housing in Compton, California. Michael Jr. is quickly recruited by a local gang and becomes involved in a myriad of criminal activities. His sister Claire refuses to join a gang and ends up being fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting.

Film director Spike Lee, who recently criticized Hollywood for its highly unrealistic portrayal of black people in such films as Bringing Down the House, praised the new direction taken in My Wife and Kids as being a much more authentic depiction of the African American experience.

That 70’s Show: High school sweethearts Eric and Donna are suddenly without a roof over their heads when Donna becomes pregnant and their parents throw them out of their respective homes. To make ends meet, Eric drops out of school and gets a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s. After having the baby, Donna supplements the family income by working as an exotic dancer at a gentleman’s parlor, while Eric begins dealing pot at his former high school.

As That 70’s Show enters its sixth season, it will finally be set in the 80’s, when cocaine was the recreational drug of choice. Eric soon discovers that trafficking in cocaine is much more lucrative than selling dope, and by the end of the season, he will have become one of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s chief lieutenants in the American mid-west.

The show even pays homage to the Al Pacino classic Scarface when Eric orders a hit on “that cock-a-roach Michael Kelso” (Ashton Kucher), whom he suspects of stealing from him and/or having an affair with Donna.

Above: That 70’s Show finally arrives in the 80’s by paying tribute to Scarface, starring Al Pacino

Malcolm in the Middle: What starts out as a friendly rivalry between Malcolm’s family and the next door neighbors goes horribly awry when child protection authorities are contacted. Charges of child endangerment are brought against both of Malcolm’s parents, and the children are all made wards of the state and sent to separate foster homes.

Meanwhile, when the regular academic curriculum is not challenging enough to sustain Malcolm’s interest, the school psychologist erroneously diagnoses him with Attention Deficit Disorder and forces him to take a potent daily dosage of Ritalin. The drug robs Malcolm of his mischievous, extroverted personality (he even stops talking to the camera), instead rendering him a quiet, emotionless automaton.

Turmoil on the home front also has a profound effect on the academic performance of Malcolm’s younger brother Dewey. As a result, he is misdiagnosed as having a learning disability, and is forced to repeat the third grade.

Sex in the City: Years of unrestrained sexual promiscuity have finally caught up to Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gal pals, as each of them is forced to deal with having contracted one or more sexually-transmitted venereal diseases. In the season premiere, Carrie learns that she has Herpes, and frantically attempts to achieve the impossible task of tracking down all of her recent sexual partners to inform them that they might have it too. Subsequent episodes have Samantha (Kim Katrall) contracting Gonorrhea, and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) becoming infected with Hepatitis C. Pamela Anderson is in talks to make a guest appearance on the show as a member of Charlotte’s Hepatitis C support group.

Above: I want your sex, but not your sexually-transmitted diseases

Chris Noth will be back to reprise his role as Carrie’s ex-boyfriend, who was known as Mr. Big for anatomical reasons. Although he admits to Carrie in an upcoming episode that he now suffers from erectile dysfunction, he will still be referred to as Mr. Big by virtue of the fact that the actor has put on over 40 lbs. since first becoming a cast member on the show.

Friends: The producers of this perennial hit knew they needed to come up with something dramatic to keep the show at the top of the ratings in its final season. At the same time, they wanted to present the audience with a plausible explanation for why the planned spin-off series starring Joey (Matt LeBlanc) would not include any of the other cast members from Friends. Their solution: To have each of the other “friends” die in a series of unlikely accidents and terminal illnesses.

The season will begin with the gang mourning the death of Ross (David Schwimmer) after he is struck by a bolt of lightning and electrocuted. Other causes of death will include Chandler (Matthew Perry) having a heart attack, and Monica (Courtney Cox Arquette) succumbing to complications arising from extensive plastic surgery.

The entire cast is quite content with the new season’s rather morbid storyline. “For actors that have the good fortune to work on a television series as popular as Friends, the greatest challenge is often finding a way to step out of the enormous shadow cast by the show after it goes off the air,” explained Matthew Perry. “Killing of each of our characters can only help to facilitate that difficult transition to the post-Friends phase of our careers.”

Matt LeBlanc is excited that this season’s healthy dose of drama will enable him to finally show his full range as an actor, although he does feel that he’s shown great versatility in some his films, such as Ed, which had him playing second banana to a chimpanzee. “Siskel and Ebert said that my performance in that film was the finest piece of acting opposite a primate since Chuck Heston chewed up the scenery in Planet of the Apes,” said LeBlanc. “Some have even compared it to Ronald Reagan’s timeless performance in Bedtime for Bonzo.”

While the rest of Prime Time has suddenly become very somber, the producers of 8 Simple Rules have not completely forsaken the show’s comedic roots. They have promised to slowly reintroduce comedy to the show over time, as they deem tasteful and appropriate in the circumstances. One scenario they’re contemplating is to hire a proven comedic actor who can be brought on the show as the children’s long-lost biological father. “While it’s clear that John Ritter’s character acted in loco parentis to the children, it was never expressly stated that he was their biological father,” explained Tracy Gamble, the show’s creator. Candidates under consideration to play television’s newest father figure include Tony Danza, Jackie Chan and Martin Lawrence.

Above: It’s not yet known whether Ritter's replacement will abide by the same “simple rules”
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