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New series review: Rules of Engagement (CBS)

David Spade plays the middleman in this quintet-essential sitcom

Premiering: Monday (Feb. 5) at 8:30 p.m. central (9:30 eastern) on CBS
Starring: Patrick Warburton, Megyn Price, David Spade, Oliver Hudson, Bianca Kajlich
Produced by: Tom Hertz, Jack Giarraputo, Doug Robinson

The actor who played "Puddy" on Seinfeld is always worth at least a few rolls in the sitcom hay.

His name is Patrick Warburton, and he's back as a deadpanning big lug of a married man on CBS' new Rules of Engagement. It's not bad, not great and a lot like Fox's pre-existing 'Til Death with Brad Garrett. Also, oddly enough, it's temporarily replacing Old Christine, whose star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, dated Puddy while playing Elaine Benes on Seinfeld

Rules begins with a pretty unassailable truism. "When you're single, you're exactly as happy as you are," it says in a printed prologue. "When you're married, you can only be as happy as the least happy person in the relationship." Think about it.

Warburton's character, a Jeff with no last name, is married to Audrey (Megyn Price from Grounded for Life). Both have more or less settled into a childless, less than live-wire relationship.

"Actually, we've sort of wrapped up the sex portion of the marriage," says Jeff. "It's been replaced by Letterman."

Also please welcome the newly engaged Adam and Jennifer (Oliver Huston, Bianca Kajlich), and commitment-phobic Russell (David Spade). Frankly it's getting nigh unto impossible to buy Spade as a stone cold chick magnet. But he's still playing a character who has no trouble bedding room temp IQ knockouts for less than a one-night stand if he can help it.

Monday's premiere finds Adam worried about falling into the same marriage gulch as Jeff. As Rules' sometimes painfully earnest straight man, he's mostly on the receiving end of laconic knockdown punches from the other two men in this show's life.

Next week's episode is built around Jeff's secret "birthday deal" with his wife, who does something special with him every year he gets older. Of course Adam wants the same arrangement, but starts to fear that Jennifer in turn might demand something too kinky from him. It's all pretty labored, playing like a very poor man's Seinfeld episode. Two crummy potty jokes further underscore that impression.

A third half-hour finds Jeff ham-handedly hitting on 24-year-old women in hopes he can replicate Russell's "shallow, sex-based relationships built on lies." Jeff's wife gives him permission to try it just this once, convinced he'll make an ass of himself. Then she starts to worry. She needn't have.

Rules of Engagement isn't as good as Old Christine but rises above The Class. It has a chance to fit in nicely, if unexceptionally, in CBS' traditionally mounted, laugh track-juiced Monday night comedy lineup.

Warburton's the main attraction, laying down a steady downbeat of beat-down. It's still easy to grin and bear him. But Spade? Not quite so much anymore.

Grade: C+