The last time Tom Hertz looked forward to the Super Bowl ending was 2007. His show Rules of Engagement premiered the next day to what remains its best numbers ever. Six years later, Hertz found himself in a similar position. Rules' seventh — and perhaps final — season premieres Monday (8:30/7:30c, CBS).
"I am shocked we didn't get [the post-Super Bowl slot]," Hertz jokes to TVGuide.com. "But if this it, then I guess we've come full circle. It's been a long, windy road."
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Or more like bumpy. The well-rated sitcom has lived a topsy-turvy existence, between its schedule-hopping, bubble status and lack of a permanent timeslot. Even its 13-episode Season 7, which will bring the show to 100 episodes, was hard to lock in, with the deal closing days after CBS revealed its schedule at the upfronts in May. "It's good for them to have a solid show that they know can perform in their back pocket when something doesn't perform," Hertz says. Indeed, Rules has always been there to bail CBS out when a new series flops or Charlie Sheen goes crazy and gets fired. Last month, at the Television Critics Association winter TV previews, CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler called Rules "the best utility warrior on television."
"Nobody wants to be the midseason utility player, but that's our lot in life," star Patrick Warburton says. "You can't sit down and talk about it and not gripe about it."
Warburton has been outspoken about CBS' treatment of the show before, infamously calling Rules' scheduled Saturday berth last season a "sh-- timeslot." (It moved to Thursdays to replace How to Be a Gentleman before ever airing on Saturdays.) His blunt comments, he says, shouldn't be misconstrued as bitterness or sour grapes, but rather as him laying out the facts.
"Each year, when one of their new shows sh---- the bed, they stick us in, and our audience comes back," Warburton says. "We're No. 1 in the audience loyalty index. ... From our position, it might be frustrating at times, but they have a model of the way they do things. I can say in our case, the show and our fans deserve much of the credit because moving us, making us midseason every year, everyone not knowing when we're on, different timeslots, everyone thinking we're canceled ... is not a model for success. We're the exception to the rule. To survive the long, arduous route that we've taken to get to 100 episodes is certainly not the model."
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While Hertz agrees that Rules has defied the odds to hit the triple-digit milestone, the executive producer understands why the show has been too valuable to cancel, but not valuable enough to receive a regular timeslot. "They're in the business of creating big hits," he says. "They want the next Big Bang Theory and Two and a Half Men. They have some shows that are a little long in the tooth, so they're thinking about two, three years down the road. So they have to start cultivating hits. Rules is not that show."
But maybe it could have been. Its second season was fragmented by the writers' strike, but Rules delivered good ratings in summer repeats. "Anything I can point at CBS that's disappointing is ... that fall  was when Big Bang really took off from their good ratings in the summer," Hertz says. "We did very nicely in the summer too, but they put us on the bench for midseason, so maybe we could've had momentum there. But I really have no complaints. You can't complain about getting to 100 episodes and being called a warrior by Nina."
Because of its kooky scheduling and usually shortened episode orders (Season 5 was the show's only full season), Hertz admits that it's difficult to plan long arcs. Most of Rules' episodes have a standalone feel, including the season premiere, which finds Liz (Wendi McLendon-Covey) temporarily moving in with Jeff (Warburton) and Audrey (Megyn Price). The 100th episode, though, will pay off a very long story line: the birth of Jeff and Audrey's daughter via their lesbian surrogate Brenda (Sara Rue). The birth was originally planned for the Season 6 finale, but was pushed back when CBS cut the show's episode order to 15.
"I didn't realize that when you have a lesbian surrogate that the gestation period is three years, but apparently it is," Warburton says with a laugh. "So our show is half-sitcom, half-Discovery Channel. It's like an elephant's gestation period. That will be the season finale, which has another surprise or two."
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And what's after the big 1-0-0? As usual, nobody knows. The actors' contracts are up, and the finale could double as a series finale, Hertz says. But he'd like to do a Season 8, partially because "it'd be fun to see Patrick hold a baby." "I think everyone likes working and having a job," he says. "I don't think anyone's begging for it to end. If CBS asks, I think we'd be able to work it out."
Warburton, however, is more cautious. "We'd all have to think about it," he says. "I think CBS would have to make some commitment to the show. Right now, I think our impression is that this is it. We're all happy where we're at and we have to thank our fans for even getting here. It's been a long haul, but a blast."
Rules of Engagement premieres Monday at 8:30/7:30c on CBS.
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