The best way to describe
Mad About You comes not from the show itself but from a better one:
Seinfeld. In it, a newly engaged George Constanza (Jason Alexander)
finds himself, so obviously against his will, watching an episode of Mad
About You with his fiancée. The look on George’s face is indescribable,
but at best it can be depicted as a what-have-I-just-done epiphany of
mortification and fear. He is trapped, now and forever, a deer in the
headlights, a newly sentenced prisoner, adjusting badly to the stifling,
compromising ritual of couples, being one of two forevermore.
As the cloying Mad
About You theme song (“The Final Frontier”) worms its way under George’s
skin, his fiancée watches the screen and chuckles knowingly and cuddles
preciously, thinking all the while, as most fiancées do while watching other
young marrieds on television, they are just like us!
However, as Seinfeld
is a show about nothing, Mad About You is a show about nothing
special. Often incorrectly described as a “married Seinfeld,”
Mad About You tries hard to remain practical and firmly planted in the
ordinary, to “unintentionally on purpose” make every episode an instant
classic, its everydayness to be appreciated and timeless, its contents to be
discussed at corporate center water coolers from now until the end of time
(The One In Which They’re Locked In The Bathroom, The One With Jerry Lewis,
The One About the Wedding, The One About The Former Boyfriend/Girlfriend).
In fact, one episode goes
as far as to suggest that Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) tortures her husband,
Paul (Paul Reiser) to rid himself of the bachelor pad he is sentimentally
holding onto, even though they are now living together in a new apartment.
Paul has been subletting the place to none other than Seinfeld’s
Kramer (Michael Richards). Clever enough, but any real Seinfeld fan
knows that Cosmo Kramer lived in the same apartment since he was a little
boy. This is just another example of the show’s mad desire for stunt casting
at any cost, usually with mild to disappointing results. More about that
Mad About You
wants it both ways: they yearn to convey that their relationship is
atypical; that their situations and chemistry are universally understood,
and the everyday, ordinary minutiae that they endure and the insecurities
involved with a new marriage are very similar to what other newlyweds go
through. And yet, they are blatantly one of the most maddeningly unrealistic
couples ever to appear on a sitcom.
As happens with so many
programs both before and after, the comedy writers of this ambitious project
commit the most heinous of crimes foisted upon the public: their seemingly
“real” characters live in an enormous apartment they can’t afford and hold
unlikely dream jobs that they almost never do. This crime is second degree
and usually unintentional: the result of committees of spoiled dreamers with
their heads in the clouds who are not exactly familiar with the hustling
reality of what it truly takes to make a living (especially in Manhattan).
doesn’t pay attention to this either, but at least they don’t pretend
to know. Jerry often says, “I’ve never had a real job,” and the running joke
about Kramer is that his whole life is like a baseball fantasy camp. George
and Elaine muddle along from job to job, each occupation more miserable than
the last, just like real people. The economic unreality of Seinfeld
is proudly acknowledged often – then they move on to find brilliant truth in
other, more mundane subjects.
From there, you only have
to look as far as Friends to see the copycat serial crime repeated:
Rachel goes from waitress to Ralph Lauren executive in a few short seasons,
Monica is a restaurant chef who never fulfills the sixty hours a week
required of most Manhattan eateries. Chandler goes from a numbers
cruncher to an advertising copywriter in about six episodes. Ross teaches
NYU students about dinosaurs.
Most TV writers are afraid
to make any character’s vocation too ordinary. Yet they strongly want you to
believe that this is a funny take on real life. You – with the ordinary job
and the stress-filled day-to-day struggle – are weary and exhausted, but you
are smarter than that. You know you don’t buy it.
Don’t misunderstand --
it’s perfectly okay to escape reality at the end of a hard, pointless day –
that’s why we watch TV. But it’s insulting to be instructed as to how close
to reality these characters are, that they’re just like us.
For economic absurdity,
nobody beats Mad About You. They completely and consciously neglect
the authenticity of a young married couple scrimping and scratching to make
ends meet. Tear away these two from their cozy TV fantasy and plop them down
in the real world: they wouldn’t last five minutes, not even on their charm.
Paul and Jamie Buchman are
clearly Exhibit A: the “neurotically funny New Yorker” (translation:
Jewish) meets his shikse goddess at a newsstand and
they marry soon after.
Although he “makes his living” as a “documentary filmmaker” and she is a
non-descript “public relations executive,” they are able to hold down a
Fifth Avenue apartment in a doorman building (!) that is as large as the
cosmos. Their bathroom, for instance, is the size of most studio apartments.
In the episode in which they get locked in the john, they don’t seem to be
irrationally upset (the way most couples would), because, let’s face it,
there is so much room in there, they can each go off on their own and not
see each other for days.
“You don’t know what I
do,” Jamie finally confronts Paul when it clearly seems evident that he
doesn’t. And neither do we. We barely ever see her working. And when she
hires her husband to direct a series of TV commercials for her client, the
dilemma of the episode is not “we desperately need this job to pay the
rent,” but “will we be able to work together on a daily basis and still love
each other?” Of course, Paul and Jamie have a difficult time at it (hence
the situation comedy), and the resolution of the story comes with Jamie’s
precious line, “I missed missing you.”
In another false note, the
couple decides to hire a maid because they are both so busy that their place
is a mess (how busy can a documentary filmmaker be?). Exactly how this fits
into their seemingly endless budget is mystery enough, but the apartment is
a hopeless tangle of laundry and dirty dishes only for that one episode and
to serve that one purpose – for the rest of the series, and without the
maid, the immense apartment is immaculate and orderly.
Here is the message they
are trying to communicate: is marriage really supposed to be like this?
They examine the “little things,” such as who sleeps on which side of the
bed, dealing with snoring, attending a foreign movie versus going to an
Amish quilt festival, old lovers, sex, no sex, the question of pineapple on
pizza, playing Monopoly, reading the Sunday paper, arguing over the remote,
searching for a lost sock, debating the use of Q-Tips, impossible in-laws,
going to other couples’ weddings, which family will have Thanksgiving dinner
and the appeal of a loveseat versus a couch. However, the Buchmans’
insecurity about the reality of marriage is a direct result of how they have
seen marriage portrayed on television: the very crime they commit and
Like most comedians of the
nineties who scored their own shows, Reiser is basically just doing his
stand-up routine (see the contents of the previous paragraph). However,
Helen Hunt is the true dilemma here: is she a brilliant, natural actress, or
is she just being Helen Hunt?
Another puzzlement is
Richard Kind, as the couple’s friend. Thankfully for us, after only one
season he would leave this show for Spin City and there he would turn
in one of television’s all-time hilarious performances. Here, unfortunately,
they don’t know what to do with him and he has not one funny line. His
character, however, can be credited with one interesting personality quirk:
he tends to find the most boring people completely fascinating. At an office
Christmas party, everybody shies away from the boss, who is telling a dull
and dreary story for the zillionth time. Kind’s character, however, can’t
get enough of this tedious tale; he even has questions about it and wants to
hear it told again.
Leila Kenzle, who
basically serves as the plain friend to the more attractive and together
Helen Hunt, plays his wife. This trick was pulled before, when Mary Tyler
Moore hired Millie Halper and later Rhoda Morgenstern as her plain friends.
Kenzle is mildly abrasive, like a kitchen cleanser. And when she’s not
there, you don’t miss her.
Even though it’s a doorman
building, quirky characters come and go without being buzzed up or announced
(another major unreality). Jamie’s sister, underplayed by Anne Ramsay, is
supposed to be a New York neurotic with a mild (mild enough for a sitcom)
eating disorder and cutesy relationship problems. However, her character
feels underwritten and not fleshed out. You want to appreciate her, but
there’s not enough there on the bone. Besides, Reiser out-neurotics
everybody so why bother with yet another New York nail biter if they’re not
going to go full volume? Paul’s friend, Selby (Tommy Hinkley) has nothing to
do but occasionally help to move the plot along, and he is soon replaced by
Cousin Ira (John Pankow), a bridge-and-tunnel lothario who has more meat to
his character and yet still doesn’t add much spice.
The stunt casting is
admirable but always falls flat: Jerry Lewis is a Jerry-Lewis-like
billionaire who – for someone unknown reason – wants Paul to film a
documentary on him. It’s basically a chance for Lewis to scream “LLLLADY!”
and act quirky on purpose and fill our hearts with joy. Barbara Feldon plays
a Barbara-Feldon-type ‘60s babe (from a fictional TV series called Spy
Girl) who is promoting her autobiography while Paul and Ira jealously
fight over her bitchy attention, all these years later.
Regis Philbin plays
himself, in the center of a media frenzy that concerns Paul’s father yelling
out to him and waving to him in a crowded theatre. The incident, for no
reason at all, makes the cover of a major New York newspaper and Paul’s
father gets his fifteen minutes of fame. This is where Mad About You
leaves reality completely for the nether reaches of outer space.
Lisa Kudrow plays a
pre-married Paul’s bizarre blind date in a flashback. In the second season,
Kudrow appears semi-regularly as yet another character, an ironically dumb
waitress (who is also the twin sister of Phoebe on Friends – are you
following this?). And deadpan comedian Steven Wright just barely plays
Paul’s deadpan assistant to whatever Paul is supposed to be doing.
The DVD contains 22
episodes, and good luck. You may want to skip over the theme song, which is
nightmarish, and the last two episodes are mistakenly switched out of order.
This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that those two episodes
are an integral part of an important story arc, and without this warning,
you will be totally confused. However, props must be given to the fact that
they were able to fit all 22 episodes onto only two DVDs. Other series, for
no apparent reason, do not subscribe to this convenience (Everybody Loves
Raymond, for instance, has its 22 episodes on five DVDs!).
Mad About You
may not be the worst thing you will ever see. They do give it their best
shot and aim high. However, their priorities are all screwed up. It’s best
described when Paul has a near-fatal accident and he exclaims, “My whole
life flashed before my eyes!” Jamie asks, “What was I wearing?” Paul
answers, “You weren’t there.”
All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2004.